This guide expands on Howard Colman Library’s basic Copyright Guide with information specific to educators.

How does copyright affect how I teach?

Educators often share information and documents created by others, whether it’s posting a scanned article on a class website, handing out copies of book chapters, showing film clips to illustrate a point, or using photographs in powerpoint presentations. Many times, these works will be protected by copyright. Luckily, the right of fair usemeans that this sharing is often perfectly legal.

How can I tell if a particular use is considered fair?

The 1976 Copyright Act codifies four factors that should be taken into account when determining whether or not a use is fair: 1.) the purpose of the use, 2.) the nature of the copyrighted work, 3.) the amount used, and 4.) the use’s effect on the market for the original. Essentially, the law asks us to try to guess what a judge might think of a particular use, so it’s very difficult to come up with clear rules or bright lines that apply across all situations. Although there have been attempts to create guidelines, these can sometimes be misleading; at best, they provide a minimal standard for what’s fair. (For more information on the four factors, see Stanford University’s Guide to Copyright & Fair Use.)

However, these questions get to the heart of determining what’s fair:

  1. Are you transforming the original work by using it for a different purpose? (For example, criticism, scholarship, or parody)? Or are you merely copying? The more transformative the use, the greater the likelihood that it will be considered fair use. The law also gives special consideration to educational uses, so even minimally transformative uses, such as copying portions of a book about the Civil War for a history class, are generally allowed, provided that they meets other requirements of fair use.
  2. Does your use compete with the original work? If your use substitutes for the original work or otherwise impairs (even potentially) the market for the original work, it is unlikely to be considered fair use. Thus, copying the majority of a textbook would probably be an infringement.
  3. Did you use only what was necessary for your purposes? The more of the original that you use, the higher the bar for fair use.

Want to be sure? Check out this Fair Use Checklist‌‌ from Cornell University.

Best practices:

  1. Use only as much as you need. If you only assign a short excerpt, distribute the excerpt instead of the entire work, and make only as many copies as you need for the class. One rule of thumb is to limit to one chapter from a multi-chapter work, or one article from a journal issue, but these guidelines are notoriously hazy.
  2. Limit access to currently enrolled students. If you are able to, upload the document you’d like to share to a password-protected site, such as a Course Management System.
  3. If possible, link to the resource (for instance, on the web, in a library database, etc.) instead of uploading a scanned copy. For works in print (like textbooks), consider placing the item on reserve at the library for student use rather than copying substantial portions yourself).
  4. In general, courts tend to favor uses that appear to be in “good faith.” This can be difficult to quantify, but acting in accordance with community norms or professional best practices helps to support fair use. For example, providing appropriate attribution of the source or including the original copyright notice shows that you are acting in good faith. On the other hand, if you know (or should know) that the copy was obtained illegally, that would count against you.
  5. If the work was explicitly created for educational use or is the kind of resource that students would customarily purchase (e.g., textbooks, workbooks), it is best to use it very sparingly.
  6. In addition, in cases where the law is hazy, uses that are “spontaneous” are generally safer (that is, if you as an individual educator decide to use something and there isn’t time to ask permission or arrange for a license). However, if the use is systematic or common to an entire department or program, or if you plan to repeat the use in future semesters, you should investigate further.
  7. Finally, if you’re still uncertain as to whether your use is fair, it’s safest to get permission for the work when it is reasonably convenient to do so.

What about showing a film in class?

As long as it supports the curriculum and is limited to students in the class, this should be fine. Section 110 of U.S. Copyright Law makes very broad allowances for the display or performance of copyrighted works, no matter what the medium is or the amount used, as long as it takes place in a face-to-face educational context. The 2002 Teach Act extends many of these allowances to the online classroom. However, it does add additional restrictions (for example, it excludes textbooks and other materials marketed for classroom use, doesn’t allow showing the entirety of a dramatic film, and seems to require that you make special arrangements to prevent students from being able to download or share the film), so in many cases this law does not go as far as Fair Use in what it allows you.

I teach about art. Can I show photographs of artworks, even if I didn’t take them?

It depends. Copyright does not apply to photographs that merely attempt to make a faithful reproduction of a two-dimensional artwork, so many photographs of public domain artworks are safe to use. (To put it another way, the photograph attempts to “copy” the original work, and therefore cannot be considered an original work protected by copyright.) However, if the work itself is protected by copyright, that would complicate matters. Whatever the case, one should follow appropriate best practices related to fair use: the amount and quality of the reproductions should serve a clear pedagogical purpose, access should be limited to enrolled students, and appropriate attribution should be provided. More detailed information can be found by consulting your professional associations, such as this guide to best practices from the College Art Association.

How do I get permission to use a copyrighted work?

It’s actually gotten a lot easier to get permission to use copyrighted works through the Copyright Clearance Center. You don’t need to track down the rights-holder (or even know their names). Just search for the title of the work, select the proper version, say what you want to use it for and how much you need, and you can get a quote for how much that license costs.