Copyright FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What is the purpose of copyright?
Answer: Most people think that copyrigty is meant to provide authors/creators with ownership over the things they create, protecting their rights. While copyright law does do this, it was not the original intent of the authors of the law. Copyright law is meant to promote the progress of science, the arts, and knowledge. It is meant to encourage new creative and intellectual works and to encourage the spread of knowledge. While authors/creators have rights to their work, their rights do not override the interests of the public, such as inspiring and educating students. According to Renee Hobbs, "courts realize that educators and students need to use copyrighted materials for scholarship, teaching, and learning" (18). Even Aristotle recognized that new ideas are created from old ideas. Copyright Law is meant to balance public interest with the rights of the author.

Question: For any work that has a copyright, what rights are protected by the Copyright Law?
Answer: The types of work that are protected under Copyright Law are those that are literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and other certain intellectual works. In general, Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Law indicates that there are five rights that are protected. The first is reproduction, which is making copies. In most cases, if you make copies, the author doesn't make any money. Many things in education are created with the idea in mind that you WILL make copies for students, but others are not. The second is distribution, which is who receives the copies. Authors reserve the right to determine if, where, to whom, and how their creations are distributed. The third is adaptation, which is any altering of the original work, such as a translation or book to play. The fourth is display/performance, which is whether the work is displayed or performed publicly or not. The last is digital transmission of the work. Interpretation of these five rights depends upon the type of media that the work is.

Question: If I am copying something for my classroom and I'm using it for educational purposes, doesn't that make it legal?
Answer: No, it doesn't. This is a huge copyright myth. As explained above, authors/creators have rights that are protected, even if your intent is honest and genuine. There have been several lawsuits brought against schools, so copying in the name of education is not enough of an argument to avoid a class action suit. However, there are several guidelines that you can follow that will allow you to use copyright materials for educational purposes without permission. These are called the Fair Use Guidelines, and they are described in the next question.

Question: What is Fair Use?
Answer: Understanding the answer to this question is essential for copyright compliance. Fair Use allows for certain limited use of copyrighted materials without the owner's permission. For educators, there are four factors that should be considered to determine Fair Use. First, is the use a nonprofit educational use? Second, is the work published and factual/nonfiction based (versus unpublished and/or creative works, which are strongly protected)? Third, are you using only a small portion that is not the central or heart of the entire work (different media have different guidelines to constitute a "small portion")? Fourth, does your use have no negative impact on the market of the work in question? If you can answer yes to all four questions, the Fair Use guidelines indicate that you can use the copyrighted work. There is a Copyright Checklist under Copyright Documents on this page that will help you determine if your use truly falls under the Fair Use guidelines. However, please keep in mind that the Copyright Checklist is only a helpful tool; it is not definitive. Fair Use is meant to rely upon a teacher's reasoning and judgement based upon the context and circumstances of the use.

Question: What is the difference between Fair Use Guidelines and Educational-Use Guidelines?
Answer: The Educational-Use Guidelines came out of Fair Use, but they are NOT copyright law. Educational-Use came out of negotiations between publishing companies and a few educational organizations in order to make the Fair Use Guidelines less vague. The largest question was, what constitutes a "small portion"? The publishing companies (and their lawyers) didn't want to leave that up to educators to decide, so they made contracts with these few educational companies to come up with guidelines for amounts. For instance, you can only use 10% of a song or 1000 words from a text. These can be seen in an Copyright Guidelines Charts or Graphs (see above in the Copyright Documents). However, these guidelines are merely helpful for someone trying to follow Fair Use; they are NOT Fair Use or Copyright Law, meaning they won't stand up in court. The educational groups involved thought that these guidelines would make educators more comfortable with copyright law, but in reality what they did was take away your ability as an educator to use critical thinking skills to determine Fair Use. So, educators can use these charts and graphs as a guideline, but it is honestly better to consider the Fair Use Guidelines above in reference to your situation of use and determine for yourself whether or not Fair Use applies.

Question: What is "transformativeness," and how does it apply to copyright?
Answer: Transformativeness is taking copyrighted material and using innovation and creativity to create a new product. In order for a transformative work to be considered Fair Use, the new product must transform the original work into a new/different purpose. You have to give the work a new purpose or somehow add value or social benefit to it. If the new work serves merely "as a substitute for the original (Hobbs, 53)," you are infringing on copyright. In addition, you need to consider whether or not your product will have a negative impact on the potential market for the original. Transformativeness has become more of a copyright issue as the Internet and other digital media tools have become more and more prominent. The Internet gives teachers and students access to more works than ever before. With that access comes the ability to download and transform original works into new ones. In fact, the current generation of teenagers are being called the mix-up/mash-up generation because many of our teens use music clips, images, video clips and more to create new media. As long as the new media has a new purpose, these teenagers are not infringing on copyright under Fair Use. A good lesson for students would be to have them justify how their project repurposes the original work or adds value to it. 

Question: What is Intellectual Property?
Answer: With the ability to "publish" things on the Internet, this term has become more important to understand. Intellectual property is anything that a person creates in a fixed, tangible form, from photographs to poetry to blog entries. Even videos created and published on sites like You Tube are considered Intellectual Property, and they are heavily protected under Copyright Law. In fact, Copyright Law protects creative works and unpublished works even more than those that have an official copyright. So, anything that someone posts on the Internet is considered Intellectual Property and is thus protected. 

Question: I have heard that I can use materials that are considered Public Domain. What is Public Domain, and how does something get into this category?
Answer: Public Domain is an original work that is not protected by copyright and therefore can be adapted, reproduced, distributed, transmitted, performed or displayed in any way. For instance, any work created by an employee of the US Federal government is public domain. The most common way that a work becomes public domain is by copyright expiration. Any literary work published prior to January 1, 1923 is public domain. This would include such things as the original Shakespearian plays, Beethoven's symphonies, and the King James Bible. However, ADAPTED VERSIONS of these originals can be copyrighted. For instance, enhanced versions or versions that include notes/analysis/explanations would not be considered public domain. Only the original version is public domain. In addition, some authors may designate something as public domain, such as works posted on the Creative Commons website. Once a work becomes public domain, it will be public domain forever. 

Question: What constitutes a public performance?
Answer: A public performance is displaying a work in "a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered" (Simpson, 73). Therefore, a school, a classroom, and even the school website would be considered public. A copyright infringement of public performance would include such things as showing a movie or playing music that does not meet all of the following criteria: in a classroom, with a teacher, with a legal copy, and directly linked to curriculum with face-to-face instruction. Most commonly, infringement of public performance occurs when educators are trying to fill time, offer a reward, babysit or entertain students, or come up with an activity for extracurriculars. In those cases, the only way to do a public performance legally would be to do one of the following: 1) get permission from the copyright holder, 2) obtain a public performance rights license from a rights broker that covers the work to be displayed, or 3) pay royalties to the copyright owner. For music, such licenses can be purchased from ASCAP and BMI. For movies, a license can be purchased from SWANK. Paying for licenses or paying royalties can be very costly, so it often better to just avoid infringement behaviors.

Question: What's the difference between copyright free and royalty free?
Answer: Copyright free is something that is not protected by Copyright Law, such as public domain works. Royalty free works are still copyrighted; however, the author of the work has forgone any collection of royalties or fees for certain use of the work(s). The use of royalty-free materials usually required a license. For instance, to play legally purchased CD's at a school function/dance, you need a public performance license from an organization such as ASCAP. You can also purchase a license to show movies for entertainment purposes on school grounds.

Question: I have several struggling readers that would benefit from audio books, but they are really expensive. Can I make my own audio books using a tape recorder or Audacity?
Answer: Unfortunately, no. According to copyright law, making your own audio book from a book that has a current copyright license is considered the same as photocopying the book. Even though it is for educational purposes and used only in your classroom for direct instruction, it is still considered infringement because 1) this would allow you to avoid purchasing the audio book (which has a negative affect on the potential market) and 2) you are altering the format that the author and publisher intended. However, if the student you are making the audio book for is blind or has a physical handicap that doesn't allow them to read a book, you can create an audio book for that student only. 

Question: Where can I find copyright free audio files and images for me and my students to use in projects?
Answer: Please see the "Copyright Friendly Links" on the right side of the page for links to copyright-free sounds and images. You can also do a Google search for copyright free sites. Creative Commons and Flickr are probably the most famous. However, it is important to remember that, even though the photos/images/music are free, it is still important to include them in your citations. You should indicate where you got not only information but also anything created by someone that you are including.

Question: Can I or my students post their student-created movies/projects on You Tube?
Answer: Yes, as long as all of the content (video footage, images, sounds, music, etc) used follows Fair Use Guidelines (see one of the above questions for these guidelines). Anything posted to You Tube by teachers and students needs to be original, creative works, include works that are public domain, or uses copyrighted work with Fair Use in mind. If copyrighted materials are included with Fair Use, they should still be given credit at the end of the film. Please watch the following tutorial video created by You Tube that discusses acceptable content and consequences for not following Copyright Law and Fair Use Guidelines. 

Question: Can I show a movie like "Twister" or "The Right Stuff" in my classroom?
Answer: You can IF AND ONLY IF you meet the following criteria: 1) the teacher must be present while the movie is viewed, 2) it must be viewed in a classroom setting, 3) the copy shown must be a legally purchased or rented copy and 4) the movie must be linked to your curriculum in some way, meaning you have to DO something with it besides just watching it. Showing movies for reward or as a time-filler is copyright infringement. The movie must be linked to your curriculum. Remember that all videos should be viewed by the teacher before showing in class in order to judge content and appropriateness. 

Question: When I show a movie in class that is linked to my curriculum, can I only show the parts of the movie that are the most applicable to the objective(s), or can I show the whole movie?
Answer: If the movie is linked to your curriculum and viewing the entire the movie gives a better understanding, you can show the entire movie. This is especially applicable if it is a movie made from a book or play that your class just read.

Question: I have a book that I really want to make copies of so that I can use it in class. I can't seem to find any copyright notice on it. If it doesn't have a copyright notice anywhere on or in it, it's not copyrighted and I can do whatever I want with it, right?
Answer: Anything that is an original creation made after April 1, 1989 is copyrighted and protected, whether or not it has a copyright notice or not. This would involve artwork, music, poetry, books, photos, images, etc etc (anything someone created in a fixed, tangible form). Even though the copyright notice or symbol is not present, it is still protected. In this case, you should probably contact the author and get permission, especially if the book is out of print and no longer available (gives good justification for permission).

Question: As long as I cite where I got the copies from, I can make copies of the copyrighted work and distribute these to students, right?
Answer: No. This is one of the biggest myths about copyright. Citing a source is an ethical decision out of respect for the author/creator, not a law. It indicates that you respect that fundamental idea that we share knowledge and information, not take it. In order to use a copyrighted material, you must determine Fair Use or write for permission. However, if you can use the material based on permission or Fair Use, you should ethically still cite the source.

Question: For my poetry unit, I have been collecting poems based upon the Fair Use Guidelines for several years now. I would like to put these poems together into a powerpoint for students to read and study for the upcoming unit test. Can I do this?
Answer: Unfortunately, you cannot. Anthologies of copyrighted material of any kind cannot be created. This includes articles, poems and other printed materials, songs, movie clips, etc. A copy of each poem is fine, but combining them into a collection constitutes creating a new work out of something that you did not originally create, which is not permitted. For instance, distributing a collection of poems or newspaper articles on a particular topic is prohibited. When publishers/producers create anthologies, they get permission from the individual authors and often have to pay royalties to include those works. However, students are allowed to create anthologies as a project as long as they are returned to the students upon grading and not displayed.

Question: I would like to scan worksheets from the support resources that came with the textbook to put them on my website so that parents and students can print them from home in case they have lost their worksheet. I would also like to be able to email these as attachments to parents. Can I do this?
Answer: This would be so helpful for students and parents, but it is copyright infringement for a couple of reasons. Number one, the author created that workbook with the idea that you would use it to make physical photocopies for your students. If you digitize the worksheets, you have changed the intended format of the author and publisher. This will change the intended reproduction and distribution. Second, by posting this on your website, you are publicly displaying the worksheets, making them available to anyone who can access your site. As stated in "Copyright for Schools" by Carol Simpson (page 52 and 65-66), authors "are exceptionally nervous about allowing their material to be digitized, fearing that it will "escape" and be lost forever." As you can imagine, this would have a highly negative impact on the market for their materials if teachers can access worksheets from your website so that they do not have to purchase the workbook. The only things that you should post on your website or email to parents are documents that you have personally created because they are your Intellectual Property (see one of the above questions for an explanation of this), and thus you own the rights to their reproduction, distribution, and display.

Question: My students are creating a video on the importance of wearing your seatbelt, and they want to include the song "If I Die Young" by The Band Perry as background music. We are planning to post these on the school website. Can the students do this?
Answer: Well, they can if the use of the song can be justified according to Fair Use. Educationl-Use Guidelines (remember that these are different) indicate that they can use 10% (but no more than 30 seconds) of a song. So, if a song is 3 minutes long, they can only use 18 seconds. However, according to Fair Use, you need to be sure that your amount is small enough as to not give away the central portion of the work. In addition, they should include a citation at the end that indicates who wrote and performed the song. Following this guideline is particularly important if the video is going to be publically displayed on the website. If the students would like to use the entire song, they would need to contact the recording company to get permission.

Question: I do notes in my classroom using powerpoint, and I like to post these presentations on my website so that students and parents can access them. I use a lot of information and images from the text when I create these. Can I post these, or do I need to take them down?
Answer: Good question, because you are publically displaying these notes. If all of the information is in your own words and use your own or public domain photos/images/music, you are creating your own work. With Intellectual Property, you have the right to do with your creation as you see fit, so you could post it on your website if you want. However, if you include direct information from the textbook or use images/photos from the textbook, these things are copyrighted. If you include copyrighted works in your presentation, you need to make sure that Fair Use applies. Particularly, you need to make sure that you are not utilizing so much of the textbook that someone could use your notes rather than purchase the book themselves. Educational-Use Guidelines indicate that you can use: no more than 15 images from a source, no more than 10% (or 30 seconds, whichever is less) of a song, no more than 10% (or 3 minutes, whichever is less) of a video, and no more than 10% of the text (or 1000 words, whichever is less). These amounts are the amount used per semester, not the amount used per presentation. If you follow these guidelines and cite where you got the copyrighted works at the end of the slideshow, you are able to post them to your website. If you need to use more than these limitations, you may want to contact the textbook publisher or whoever created what you need to use.

Question: I want to post my students videos and powerpoint presentations on our website because they are so wonderful, but they contain a lot of copyrighted information. Can I post them since they are student-created?
Answer: Well, that depends. If they used the Fair Use Guidelines as indicated in the question above, the answer is yes. Those guidelines applies to everyone, including teachers and students. Again, I would highly recommend that students include a slide that shows where they got the photos/images/music, even if they are public domain or copyright free. If they have content that does meet the above guidelines, I would not publicly display it.

Question: In this morning's Post Dispatch, there was an article about local pollution, and this ties in directly with what I am doing in my science class right now. Can I photocopy this article and distribute it in my class today for discussion?
Answer: The answer is yes. This falls under the "spontaneity" part of Fair Use. The rationale behind it is that there is not enough time to get proper permission for reproduction and distribution of the article (it usually takes about two to three weeks for a reply). It is recommended that you include a correct MLA citation for the article on the photocopies. However, the article needs to be collected and destroyed once used in your curriculum. In addition, the teacher should contact the author in order to use this article in future years. Furthermore, the article can only be used for one class. If the article needs to be used for more than one class, a copy can be placed on reserve in the library or a copy can be posted in the classroom, but individual copies cannot be distributed to more than one class without permission from the author. On another note, if the teacher saw this article and wanted to use in a couple of months when the topic comes up in class, written permission should be obtained since there would be plenty of time to write for permission and receive a reply.

Question: Tomorrow night, Dateline NBC will have a interview with Nelson Mandela, and I really want to show this in my history class the next day. Can I record it tomorrow night and show it in class the next day?
Answer: This answer is the same as the one above. With spontaneity, the answer is yes. However, according to the Educational-Use Guidelines, once you record something from television, you only have 10 school days to show that video, and then the video must be destroyed/recorded over within 45 days of being recorded. If you want to continue to use the video in the future or down the road, you should contact the producer for permission or buy a legal copy. Your library media specialist can be extremely helpful in helping you find a legal copy to purchase. Furthermore, you can only show it to two classes in one day. So, if you have four history classes, you can show it to two classes on one day and then to the other two classes on another day.

Question: I have a copyrighted work that I need to request permission to continue to use. How do I go about requesting permission?
Answer: In the Copyright Documents section above, there is a sample letter to request permission to use or copy copyrighted material. You may need to alter this letter to fit your particular needs. Your library media specialist can help with you the composition of the letter and with finding an appropriate address to send it. Remember to be as descriptive as possible about exactly what you want to use or copy. It is important to make your request far enough in advance of when you want to copy/use the material so that you allow time for a response. This could take two to four weeks. In addition, it is important to note that if you don't receive a response after about a month, assume that the answer is "no." Furthermore, once you do receive permission, whether in the form of a letter or email, you need to file and keep this documentation!

Question: What will happen to me as an educator if I break copyright law?
Answer: Most commonly, companies will contact you with a "cease and desist" letter, asking you to stop doing whatever it is that you are doing to infringe upon copyright. If you follow this order, generally nothing more will happen. If you fail to follow this order, a lawsuit could be initiated by the company who feels infringed upon. In more extreme cases, a lawsuit could be initiated without a "cease and desist" order first, especially where the infringement was considered willful (when you infringe upon copyright even though you knew it was infringement). Schools encounter copyright actions on a daily basis, so educators and schools are not free from copyright lawsuits. During the court case, the teacher would have to prove that Fair Use was not only considered but also applies to the situation.


Hobbs, Renee. Copyright Clarity: How Fair Use Supports Digital Learning. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2010.
Simpson, Carol. Copyright for Schools: A Practical Guide, 4th Edition. Worthington,
OH:Linworth Books, 2005.
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