Copyright Laws for Teachers: What You Need to Know

Copyright Laws for TeachersCopyright is part of a legal concept called intellectual property, which basically bestows some of the legal protections given to tangible property to intangible things. In the United States, copyright is actually a codified right in the Constitution “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The specifics of the law are contained in the Copyright Act of 1976, which lays out all the rights of copyright holders as well as the provisions of “fair use.” This is of particular importance to teachers who may want to use copyrighted material in the course of their classes. Here are a few lesson on copyright as gleaned from Bright Hub Education.

How do I know if something is copyrighted?
Unless you see that something is explicitly stated as not having a copyright, then you should assume that any original creative work is indeed protected by a copyright. Copyright holders don’t necessarily have to go through any special process to get copyright; it is conferred automatically at the moment of creation, and since 1989, the copyright symbol or phrases like “all rights reserved” are no longer necessary.

Does copyright protection last forever?
The term of protection has changed quite a bit over the years. Most recently, in 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended copyright protection to the duration of the author’s life plus 70 years. After that period is up, the work goes into the public domain, which means that it is public property and available for use by anyone. This is especially important for English teachers to know, because it means that many classic literary works can be used and distributed in any way you like.

What rights do copyright holders have?
The Copyright Act gives five exclusive rights to the creators of a work: the right to reproduce; the right to create derivative works; the right to sell, lease or rent copies of the work to the public; the right to perform the work publicly; and the right to display the work publicly.

What does “fair use” mean?
Fair use is part of the Copyright Act and allows for certain uses of copyrighted materials without the copyright owner’s permission. This is what allows scholarship, review, commentary and criticism of works; e.g. You can reproduce something for the purpose of analyzing or criticizing it. Fair use is considered on a case-by-case basis. If someone sues you for copyright infringement, you may be able to argue fair use as a defense depending on the case. The court then considers these four factors: the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for non-profit educational purposes; the nature of the copyrighted work; the portion of copyrighted work used; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the original copyrighted work.

What about classroom copies?
For research or preparation for a class, a teacher can copy book chapters, magazine and newspaper articles, short stories and poems, diagrams and pictures. A teacher can make multiple copies (one per pupil in a course) of something for classroom use or discussion, as long as poems are fewer than 250 words and two pages, prose is fewer than 2,500 words or an excerpt, and only one diagram/picture is copied from a single work. The copying should also be at the inspiration of the individual teacher, and it would be unreasonable to take the time to get permission to use the work. It should also be copying for only one class, there should be no more than one poem/article/story or two excerpts copied from the same author or more than three from the same collective work during one class term, and there should be no more than nine instances of multiple copying for one class during a term.