This is a brief guide for students and educators about copyright and how it affects you in the classroom, including links to further resources.

See below for additional information about copyright for Students and Educators.

What is copyright?

Copyright is the legal right to reproduce and distribute a given work. Essentially, copyright law attempts to balance the rights of creators with the overall benefit to society (as the Constitution states, the law’s ultimate purpose is “to promote the progress of sciences and the useful arts”).

Why should I care about copyright?

Whether or not you realize it, you are creating and using copyrighted works all the time. Although it’s unlikely that you would commit a serious copyright violation accidentally, the penalties for infringement can be severe, and it’s best to be aware of what the law does and does not require. You might also be surprised to learn that the law may actually allow you more latitude than you expected, especially in educational situations.

How can I tell if something is covered by copyright?

The instant an original work is created and fixed in any tangible medium of expression, whether in paper, stone, celluloid, or digitally, it is protected by copyright. Attaching a copyright notice to your work and registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office is not required, but these steps do provide some additional legal protections.

How long does copyright last?

Although there are exceptions, it’s safe to assume that any work published after 1923 is protected by copyright. Any works produced after 1978 are protected for 70 years after the death of the creator. Since the term of copyright has been extended over the years and changes depending on whether the work has been published and whether it was created independently or as a work for hire, you may want to take a look at this detailed chart from Cornell University or this Brief History of Copyright from the Center for History & New Media at George Mason University.

What is not covered by copyright?

Works not protected by copyright are considered to be in the public domain and can be copied or reused for any purpose without permission. Works that are always in the public domain include:

  • Any works published before 1923
  • Any works published by the federal government
  • Ideas, discoveries, or facts, including even some minimally creative works that are merely collections of facts, such as phone books

Are there any other exceptions to copyright?

Yes, absolutely. Even if a work is protected by copyright, creators can authorize others to copy or reuse it in a variety of ways. (One easy way to do this is through Creative Commons licenses.) But the most important legal exception to copyright is Fair Use.

What is fair use?

Fair use is an exception to copyright that allows people who are not the copyright holder to copy or reuse part (or sometimes all) of a copyrighted work. As a limitation placed on copyright, fair use enhances the social benefits of copyrighted works without harming the copyright holder. For more on fair use, see these guides to Fair Use from NOLO.

Examples of fair use:

  • Distributing photocopies of a book chapter or journal article to class members, or posting a pdf to a course website that only class members can access.
  • Quoting short passages from another work in a review or scholarly work in order to comment on it or illustrate a point.
  • Imitating or borrowing substantial portions of another work for purposes of parody or criticism.
  • Showing a film in class for educational purposes.


Copyright for Students and Educators

Copyright For Students: Finding Images For Class Assignments

Copyright For Educators: What Can You Use in the Classroom?


Learn More

Stanford University Libraries Copyright Overview

Brief History of Copyright from the Center for History & New Media at George Mason University

Copyright Crash Course from the University of Texas Libraries

US Copyright Office: Copyright Basics

U.S. Copyright Office: Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians 

Creative Commons

Best Practices Codes from the Center for Media & Social Impact