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Copyright in the Classroom

Copyright law tends to favor uses of copyrighted materials that are nonprofit and educational, because these types of uses advance copyright’s primary purpose – to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

When the last major revision of the Copyright Act occurred in 1976, most teaching happened in a traditional physical space, with the instructor and the students present in the same classroom. Students watched movies, viewed reproduced materials, and listened to music. They left the classroom with new ideas, facts, memories, and their notes, but without their own copies of copyrighted materials.

Today, the law still recognizes that such traditional, “face-to-face” classroom performances and displays are so beneficial as to outweigh harm to the market for the works used.

If you are:

  • A teacher or student
  • In a physical classroom or similar place devoted to instruction
  • Using a lawfully obtained (i.e. not pirated) copy
  • For an educational purpose
  • At a nonprofit educational institution

Then you:

  • Do not need permission
  • To perform (movie, audiovisual materials, music, plays, etc.)
  • Or display (photos, images, text, etc.)
  • Any copyrighted work.

"Online teaching" refers to courses that are presented entirely online, as well as courses that have both face-to-face and online components. The discussion and options offered here assume that the online course is part of the educational activities of a nonprofit educational institution.

When placing the copyrighted materials of others within an online course, you have three options:

  • Comply with the requirements of the TEACH Act (Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act)
  • Determine whether your proposed use qualifies as a fair use
  • Obtain permission from the copyright holder.

Under the TEACH Act, you may use:

  • An entire performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work, or
  • Reasonable and limited portions of a dramatic literary, musical, or audiovisual work, or
  • Other works such as images in an amount comparable to what would be displayed in a live classroom session.

     As long as:

  • Access to the works is strictly limited to officially enrolled students. Technical controls should prevent downloading, copying, access to the materials beyond the class session, and unauthorized further dissemination.
  • You don’t interfere with any technological protection measures already in place.
  • The works are performed or displayed at your direction or under your supervision, and as an integral part of regular class time instruction. The works must also be directly related and of material assistance to the educational objectives of the class.

Certain materials are excluded from the TEACH Act’s coverage:

  • Materials specifically marketed for e-learning or digital distance education.
  • Copies you know or should know are illegal.
  • Textbooks, coursepacks, electronic reserves, and similar materials typically purchased individually by students for independent review outside the classroom.