Copyright Laws for Teachers and Students

A Teacher’s Guide to Copyright and Fair Use

Many educators are under the impression that they are immune to legal repercussions simply by virtue of the fact that they hold the position of teacher. This is despite the fact that some school districts do provide resources and policies to assist educators in navigating the murky waters of copyright and fair use.

However, the regulations regarding copyright and fair use are intricate, and the fact that you are a teacher does not necessarily indicate that you are always in the safe zone. They’re also not a matter of politeness: If you pay attention to the specifics of fair use and copyright, you can protect both yourself and the school district from the possibility of incurring a financial penalty for infringing upon intellectual property rights. Getting an education on the fundamentals of the problem is also essential since, as a teacher, you should serve as an example of appropriate use for your pupils so that they may safeguard themselves as well.

Copyright and fair use laws have become an issue of concern as a result of the fact that technological advances have significantly reduced the barriers to sharing, copying, and creating at any time. As a result, each of us is now a prospective publisher and distributor of content. It is now a lot less difficult to get away with breaking the rules. Copyright is about community duty and protection, as well as good digital citizenship, and this is especially true in the age of digital technology.


The American copyright law has its roots in the Constitution of the United States of America and protects all original, creative work in a fixed form automatically. This means that the moment a work is made, it is protected by the law. In general, works created after January 1, 1978 are protected by copyright for a period of time equal to the author’s lifetime plus seventy years after their death. This is known as the “copyright term.” Shakespeare’s and Dickens’ and Frederick Douglass’ and, more recently, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s and Alain LeRoy Locke’s original works, such as The Great Gatsby and The New Negro: An Interpretation, are examples of works that are now considered to be in the public domain and are therefore no longer protected by copyright laws. In addition, copyright does not apply to facts and public information, printed maps, or official papers or pictures; hence, images and text taken from public institutions such as NASA, the Smithsonian, and the National Archives can be used without the need for permission.

It goes without saying that the copyright for works that are not included in these exceptions is always present and in effect; yet, it may be instructive to think about it in the following way: The majority of the time, “Do not trespass” signs are posted on works that were created by other people. You would be breaking the law if you simply disregarded a sign that said “Do not trespass” that was posted on land, right? The same principle applies to works of creativity, such as the doodles you drew or the selfies you took on a friend’s phone.

The concept of copyright takes on a slightly more complicated form in the context of educational institutions and classroom settings (including online programmes). Even content that is protected by intellectual property rights can be utilised there provided that it is used for direct, in-person instruction and that the educational institution in question is a charitable organisation.

As a result, educators and the majority of educational institutions are afforded a high level of protection, which enables them to use videos and articles from publications such as the New York Times and Scientific American in the classroom setting without fear of legal repercussions. If it is for the sake of training, and the educational institution in question is a nonprofit organisation, then it is acceptable to provide a link to a recent story from the Washington Post or to a video from PBS or CNN in your learning management system. The act of copying and sharing works generated by other people, such as printing out entire articles and sending them to your students, is, on the other hand, often fraught with greater legal risk. When the duplicated information is not copied in its whole or when it is not provided to the entire class, the law of copyright is more liberal in these situations.

Be wary when employing so-called creative works in the classroom, such as books, poems, movies, or songs, because they can easily be plagiarised and used inappropriately. These kinds of creative works are generally protected, and this holds true even if you plan to use them to teach others something. [Citation needed] In the majority of instances, school systems purchase copies of those assets, or the students themselves are asked to purchase them, which grants everyone the right to consume them. Alternatively, the students may be asked to purchase them on their own. In the meantime, it is clear that you are violating copyright if you use anything from this category for purposes that are not instructional. For example, if you were to show a Pixar movie as a reward or during recess on a rainy day when there was no instruction, you would be in violation of copyright.


The fair use doctrine is something of a legal counterbalance to copyright that allows for creativity. Its purpose is to promote freedom of expression, which is especially important in educational settings, by allowing “the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works under certain circumstances.” This adds to the confusion that already exists. In the event that there is a disagreement regarding the ownership of copyright, the judges will consider the following four criteria in order to decide whether or not something is protected by fair use.

The extent of the work that was used, the nature of the original (was it fiction or more factual, for example), the purpose for which it was used (did you use it for instructional purposes, for example), the amount of the work that was used (using all of the work or especially important parts of the work is risky), and the value of the work are all factors that are taken into consideration by the courts (if your actions materially impact the ability of the artist to make a living, that infringes on copyright).

Important disclaimer: the use of content in the service of satire is permitted, which means that you are free to use or create memes as part of your lesson plan without fear of legal repercussions.


Given how complicated copyright and fair use are, as well as the complexity of digital use and sharing, the following recommendations can assist you in remaining within the acceptable legal boundaries.

Limit your exposure: Instead of utilising your class homepage to share published materials with your students, consider using a learning management system (LMS) such as Google Classroom or another similar platform that requires a password to access. In this manner, you will only be sharing with the pupils enrolled in your class.

Use the Tools setting on Google to filter images; when a search for an image has returned results, click the Tools menu, then click on Usage Rights, and finally select Creative Commons licence.

Install add-ons for your web browser: Install the add-ons from Flaticon’s Icons for Google Slides and Docs as well as Noun Project to make searching for and inserting free images much simpler.

Use Project Gutenberg: It is a collection of over 60,000 free e-books (and the number continues to grow), all of which have had their copyrights revoked. You have the option of reading them in a browser, on a Kindle, or downloading them to read later. For instance, every one of Shakespeare’s works can be found there, in addition to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and the writings of a great number of other authors.

Create bookmarks for the following sites: The development of the internet gave rise to a new method of managing copyrights that is known as Creative Commons. This method enables the original authors of photographs, films, and written works to implement clear copyright guidelines and to make their work accessible to a wide audience. When looking for content that can be used in a legitimate manner, the Creative Commons search tool is an essential resource. In addition to the higher-quality files that are available for purchase, you should bookmark websites that collect media such as images, videos, or text that is licenced under the Creative Commons licence. Some examples of such websites include Flickr, Pixabay (images, videos, and music), and Unsplash (photos); Noun Project (icons and photos); and Bensound, which has a library of free audio files. You should give the bookmarks to your students to use.

Do not overlook Wikipedia; it is the founding father of all sites that use Creative Commons. If you include the backlink, you have permission to copy and modify the material of this extensive resource, which is regularly updated by volunteers who are frequently subject matter experts. Students ought to be made aware of the fact that Wikipedia is susceptible to hackers (both malevolent and comedic), and the content ought to be verified with other sources. This should go without saying.

Utilize the free audiobooks that are offered on multiple websites, such Librivox and Spotify, for example. There are a wide variety of titles available on Spotify, ranging from “Animal Farm” by George Orwell to “The Fir Tree” by Hans Christian Anderson.

Utilize the resources that may be found on government websites. Websites such as NASA, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian, as well as primary sources from the Library of Congress and documents from state or local government agencies, are a treasure mine for educators.

Be aware that there is no emergency exemption: regardless of how dire the situation may be or how honourable your intentions may be, you should not make and distribute copies of entire books, workbooks, study guides, practise books, or even an entire page from a textbook. This rule applies even if the situation is urgent. Either pay for enough copies for each student to have their own or ask the owner for permission to copy the material.

Steer clear of duplicating and distributing “creative content”: books, plays, movies, and poems are significantly more likely to be exempt from fair use. Avoid copying and distributing “creative stuff.”

Consider utilising published sources: Never copy and distribute anything that has not been published.

When in doubt, reach out: If a publication or resource you require is no longer being produced and you are unable to purchase it (for example, an out-of-print book), contact the publishing company and ask for permission to make copies.