Using YouTube Videos in Your Online Course – Better Safe Than Sorry!

One question I am often asked is, “Can I use YouTube videos in my course?”  Unfortunately, the answer to that is not a clear “yes” or “no”, as it depends on the particular YouTube video.

Many teachers are under the assumption that they can embed (“embed” means to use code to make the video appear within your online course) any YouTube video in their course, and that there is no need to seek permission to do so. That is absolutely false, and is a sure recipe for getting yourself into trouble with a copyright holder.

The YouTube Terms of Service are rather lengthy, most people don’t read them. And that’s OK, because for viewers of YouTube content, the terms boil down to a couple of simple key points:

  1. You don’t need permission to view YouTube content.
  2. If you EMBED YouTube content on your website (such as in a Moodle course), you agree “not to access Content through any technology or means other than the video playback pages of the Service itself, the Embeddable Player, or other explicitly authorized means YouTube may designate”. Since most of use won’t be interested in hacking YouTube’s embed code, this is of little concern to us.

So if it’s OK to view YouTube videos, and it’s OK to embed in them in your course, then what’s the problem?

Simple – NOT everyone who has posted videos to YouTube follows the rules. Very often, YouTube videos are posted by individuals who DO NOT own the content and did not have permission to upload it. Therefore, if you ever are going to embed a YouTube video in your course, you must ensure that the actual owner of the content is the one who uploaded it to YouTube. In other words, DO NOT automatically assume it’s OK to embed any YouTube video into your course – do your homework, and make sure the owner of the content is associated with its distribution on YouTube.

Even when a legitimate owner of a video has posted to YouTube, they may have additional stipulations regarding its use, so always be sure to check the notes area below the YouTube video for any additional stipulations.

So, does that all make sense? How about a pop-quiz – what are the answers to the following YouTube-related copyright concerns?

QUESTION: Can I take a screenshot image of part of YouTube video and use that in my course? Can I use part of a YouTube video in the creation of a video of my own?

ANSWER. MOST OF THE TIME, NO (see exception that follows). That is a violation of YouTube’s terms. Their content must be viewed only through the YouTube embedded player if you wish to insert it in your course. If you want to use parts of the video in other ways, you’ll need to contact the copyright owner for permission.

OK, what about that exception? Well, interestingly, some YouTube content owners do not use the YouTube standard license when they upload – instead, they choose a Creative Commons Attribution License. For example, take a look at the following information (there’s License info beneath EVERY YouTube video!)  for this YouTube video:


Look carefully at the License – it is CC Attribution! In cases such as these, you CAN use the content in your own video, but you MUST attribute – the best way to do that is to make a clear link in your video (or within your course right next to to your video) back to the original content on YouTube.

QUESTION: I want to use a YouTube video in my course but I am not certain that the contents of the video are copyright friendly. It looks like the user may have used images that belong to someone else. Is it possible for me to use this video in my course?

ANSWER. You should NOT embed the video in your course if you are uncertain of copyright ownership. If you really want to use the video for your course, LINK to it – that is, when students click on it, they are taken to YouTube. But DO NOT EMBED the video in your course.

QUESTION: I have determined that the content of a certain YouTube video is public domain. Can I download this video and edit it into a video of my own creation?

ANSWER. Sure. No problem. As long as the content is public domain, you’re good to go.

QUESTION: A YouTube video I want to use has additional stipulations – it says it can only be displayed under the terms of a Creative Commons license. Can I embed this video in my course?

ANSWER. It depends. Many people think Creative Commons means “use as you wish” – that is absolutely false. Creative Commons licenses come in many forms (learn more about them here:, and some of them are very restrictive. For example, CC BY-NC-SA states that you can use the content non-commercially, but only if you release the resulting work under the same license. Are you prepared to release your whole course under a Creative Commons license? Then you better think twice about using that content. If you are uncertain about the use of Creative Commons content, you should check get the opinion of a colleague, and be very certain about the terms of the CC license before proceeding.

QUESTION: A fellow teacher told me that we can use parts of YouTube videos from educational sources such as Pearson, McGraw, National Geographic, etc. because it falls under “fair use”. Is that true?

ANSWER. No. Fair Use is a legal term for using copyright-protected material without getting permission from the owner, but this is only under pretty restrictive circumstances. Generally, Fair Use covers only very small portions of copyrighted material for use in criticism, new reporting, artistic remixes, or for educational purposes in limited circumstances. As always, if you want to use content from YouTube other than exactly the way YouTube dictates is acceptable (such as simply viewing or embedding), you better get permission.

QUESTION: Are you sure about that? I heard that under “fair use”, teachers are entitled to copy up to 10% of any copyrighted material without having to obtain permission from the copyright owner.

ANSWER. While it is true that copyright legislation in Canada and the United States has been changed in recent years to include education under Fair Use (also known as “Fair Dealing”), the whole idea of teachers being entitled to copy whatever they want in any particular quantity is absolutely incorrect. The “10% rule” is a myth/misunderstanding that came from judges in particular court cases arbitrarily (nowhere does 10% appear in any legislation!) using the figure of 10% to ascertain whether or not the amount copied in those particular cases was reasonable under the Fair Use provision for education.

Fair Use for education was designed to protect teachers under the limited circumstances of, let’s say, the occasional photocopy of a textbook page used only with the teacher’s immediate students. Any teacher or educational publisher who is distributing content widely (such as an online school distributing content to thousands of students and other schools), and particularly if they are charging for access, would be foolish to expect “Fair Use” to protect them in event of being sued by a copyright holder. If you go ahead and use someone else’s content without permission, you should NEVER expect that “10%” will protect you in the court of law. Depending on the circumstances, individuals/organizations have been held liable for violating copyright in amounts far less than 10% of a work.

In short, teachers are legally and ethically bound to seek permission when they want to use content that is owned by others.

QUESTION: OK, let’s get back to YouTube basics here. Just give me some short copyright advice that will keep me safe as I build my online course.

ANSWER. If you are ever uncertain about the using a YouTube video in your course (for example, you’re not exactly sure who owns the content in the YouTube video) the best advice to remember is to LINK to it rather than EMBED it in your course. You can’t get into copyright trouble for linking to anything. Of course, you CAN get into trouble if the content is inappropriate, but that will have to wait for another blog post!

By Josef Martha

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