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So what's a copyright? Under Title 17 U.S. Code, the copyright holder (usually the author or creator) is given exclusive rights to reproduce the work, create derivative works, and distribute its copies. Using copyrighted works without permission is considered infringing on the copyright holder's rights with some exceptions, unless you've obtained permission from the copyright holder. If you're ever unsure whether it's okay to use a copyrighted work as a teacher, asking for written permission from the copyright holder prevents ambiguity.

Fair Use for Teachers

One major limitation of copyright is the doctrine of fair use, stemming from section 107 of the 1976 Copyright Act (17 USC § 107). In layman's terms, the use of a copyrighted work is permitted for teaching and education, as long as it is:

  • non-commercial in nature
  • only includes a non-substantial portion of the work, and
  • does not significantly impede the holder's right to distribute the work.
For example, using a two-page excerpt from a book that is comprised of three hundred pages is likely to be considered fair. However, excerpting two pages from a six-page publication could be considered copyright infringement.

The Classroom Use Exemption

With the passing of the TEACH Act, Congress has added an additional exemption along the lines of Fair Use. The Classroom Use Exemption allows for the performance and display of copyrighted works so long as the copy was lawfully obtained, shown for instructional purposes at a non-profit institution, and is done in a face-to-face setting. This exemption would allow a professor to show the film Citizen Kane, in its entirety, in a cinematography class--however, it would not allow the same professor to broadcast the film to each student at home nor would it allow distributing copies of the film to the students. All forms of media can fall within the classroom use exemption, be it music or fine art, but they all must meet the same standard.

Public Domain

The safest option is to rely on materials that are in the public domain. These works are ineligible for copyright protections. For example, works created by federal government employees as part of their official responsibilities are considered to be in the public domain, as are works published before 1923. However, the copyright status of each work should be investigated, due to the complicated nature of copyright law in the United States. For example, unpublished works created before 1923 are considered to be protected by federal copyright, lasting for the life of the author and an additional 70 years.

Other Options

While there are many restrictions on how you can use copyrighted material, it doesn't mean yo''re out of options. Teachers may be able to simply read the material aloud rather than creating copies--in addition, reserving the specific media at a library, providing links to websites, and creating your own online materials may allow your students access to the materials they need without landing you in legal trouble. As always, the field of copyright law and electronic materials is always evolving so be sure to check with your school or ask a lawyerto ensure you stay within the letter of the law.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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