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What every teacher must know about copyright for online lessons

Creating online teaching modules takes an enormous amount of time. Many teachers are tempted by the swift right-click-save-as action, or popular CTRL-C / CTRL-V shortcut to, well, take short cuts.

Teachers that randomly and freely use online content in their lessons, and often trample over copyright in the process, have a common excuse, “...but it’s for a good purpose.” School administrators trying to curb the practice are inversely seen as sticklers or buzz-kills.

Retaining and protecting the rights of content owners is not only an important principle in keeping the internet a safe and vibrant place for original creation and content, but teaching students the importance of attribution is a critical lesson in the boundary between research and plagiarism. A skill that becomes more important as they move into college, as plagiarism is likely to get them kicked out of college and will dramatically affect their academic record.

So, let’s walk our talk and not only teach ethics, but also teach in a way that is ethical. The first step on this journey is to understand the difference between copyright and fair use.

What is copyrighted material?

We will refer here only to the U.S. Copyright Law. The U.S. code defines copyrighted material in surprisingly broad terms: practically everything that is tangible, and originally created, attracts copyright protection - even if the author hasn’t used the copyright symbol, or explicitly stated that the work is copyrighted.

A list of non-copyrighted work includes:

  • Work that is not fixed in tangible form or expression
  • Titles, slogans, short phrases and names
  • Ideas, concepts & principles
  • Procedures & processes
  • Discoveries
  • Methods of operation, lists of ingredients
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and contains no original authorship, such as standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers
  • Work in the public domain, in the U.S. this means:
    • Any work published before 1923
    • Work published between 1923-1978 that did not declare or renew its copyright
    • Work by a federal employee
    • Work whose author has issued it into the public domain.

Many teachers assume that the fair use rule exempts them from any restrictions, but this is not the case. Fair use, while applying to instruction and teaching, also has limitations that are intended to protect the rights and commercial benefits of an author or creator.

What is fair use?

When establishing whether your intended usage of material is “fair” as defined by the copyright code, teachers are obliged to ask themselves a number of questions.

  • How am I using the material? Altering, interpreting or adjusting material is more likely to be considered fair use, than copying vast tracts verbatim. For instance, if you found a great infographic online that perfectly describes what you are teaching, perhaps consider using concepts from the infographic to create your own, than simply copying and pasting - which would, in fairness, require permission from the creator.
  • Is the work factual or creative? Factual work is more likely to be considered fair use, than creative work. If you want, for instance, to teach about the life of Abraham Lincoln, consider extracting facts and figures from reputable websites, than playing your class the movie Lincoln.
  • How much of the work will I use? If you are hoping to copy and paste an entire article from The Economist to make a point about the NAFTA renegotiations, you will be out of bounds of the fair use rule. Using a few paragraphs, or quotes, should however be acceptable under the rule.
  • Does my usage limit the commercial benefit to the author? This is especially true of educational content created by professionals, who rely on its sale and distribution for their livelihood. Photocopying whole chapters of textbooks, as opposed to encouraging your students to buy the book is clearly not fair use.

The fair use rule gives teachers a reasonable framework within which to decide if they need to request permission for using material or not. There are however other options for the resourceful teacher, seeking thought-provoking content.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a non-profit organisation that permits copyright holders to more easily share their work, within the copyright framework. The licenses come in four basic formats:

  • CC BY (Attribution). This is the most open license and permits users to share, alter, remix and change the original material for distribution, but they must credit the creator.
  • CC BY-ND (Non-Derivative). This license allows for free commercial and noncommercial distribution, the work is not permitted to be altered and the creator must be credited.
  • CC BY-NC (Non-Commercial). This allows for derivative work (work that has been altered from the original) to be created from the original, but only for noncommercial purposes. Attribution must be given.
  • CC BY-SA (Share Alike). This license allows for commercial derivatives, but any new work resulting must also be distributed under the same license. Creators must be credited.
  • CC BY-NC-SA (Non-Commercial Share Alike). Here the derivative work may not be used for commercial purposes, and must be distributed under the same license category. Creators must be credited.
  • CC BY-NC-ND (Non-Commercial, Non-Derivative). Here you may download and share the work, as long as it is for noncommercial purposes, and no derivatives may be created. Creators must be credited.

The below graphic is a helpful way to understand the various licences. Sourced from under a BY-SA license.

Free resources

Finally, there are a host of truly wonderful free-to-use resources online. Find a good list of free photo, music and video resources here. Be aware that much of the work will be released under one or other Creative Commons license.

A final word

Working within a copyright or Creative Commons framework may seem restrictive and cumbersome. However, if creative people are going to continue producing eye-catching and thought provoking work of quality, they need a system that ensures they are correctly acknowledged and remunerated.

The ideal of the internet is a free, open space where original, useful and important work can be created, shared and enhanced - copyright and licenses ensure it remains that way.

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