Skip to Main Content


An Introduction to Copyright in An Educational Situation

FLEX 2023

Why is this subject important in the grand scheme of things?

  1. Morally and ethically:  We ask our students to be ethical purveyors of information in usage and in citation.  Our students (like my kids) can spot a hypocrite from a mile away. Whooee!
  2. Economically and practically:
    • Our paychecks are contingent upon a financially solvent district.  Any violations of copyright make the school and district liable to lawsuits and settlements.  In addition, the violation makes you personally liable and could result in you being named in the lawsuit and in your termination for not following board policy.
    • Our ability to provide access to databases relies on our usage of said databases.  Linking to articles, as opposed to uploading a PDF, shows usage.  With those statistics, we can argue for continued funding.


There is no doubt that copyright webinars and courses are some of the most boring I may ever attend. Additionally, there are so many caveats and legal wranglings, I leave every one wondering if there are any hard and fast answers to any copyright questions.  This summary is in no way exhaustive, nor should it be deemed as legal advice.  I am providing what I understand to be the hard "no," and additional information you may go through to come to your own conclusion for various other situations.

Clarifying definitions that pertain to these rights are necessary to understanding them fully.

Copyright Law Section 101, Definitions


"to perfom in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show its images in any sequence or to make the sounds accompanying it audible."

  • EX. In a f2f classroom, playing an entire movie under the protection of Fair Use
  • EX. In an online classroom, playing a short clip of a movie as allowed under the TEACH Act (playing a whole movie is not allowed unless it is licensed for that use through the library or you have personally paid for a 'viewing party.



"to show a copy of it, either directly or by means of a film, slide, television image, or any other device or process or, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to show individual images non-sequentially."

  • EX. In a f2f classroom, you have a slide showing a picture taken from National Geographic.
  • EX. In an online classroom, you post a slide showing a picture taken from National Geographic (there are not limitations on quantity in the online environment when it comes to display that are more restrictive than Fair Use).
  • EX. In neither environment would it be legal to place an entire book or chapter of a book on display (can also be read as passing it out in hard form).

Online classes:

may be synchronous or asynchronous


*Some clarifying ideas on this page came from the US Library of Congress' Copyright Blog, used under Public Domain laws.

Here is a quick run-down of various laws regarding the legal use of materials in the non-profit classroom.



Fair Use covers a broad range of allowable uses of materials in the non-profit educational setting. It does not, however, cover everything. Some may be surprised to find that uses of materials they thought fell under Fair Use, may not be as straightforward as lore would have us think.


The TEACH ACT specifically applies to the online classroom. It allows a teacher to perform and display works in the same manner they would in a f2f classroom.  However, where a teacher could show an entire DVD in the f2f classroom under Fair Use, there is no such provision for it in the online classroom, not via Fair Use and not via the TEACH Act.  The amounts allowed to be used are much much smaller. 

BUT WAIT! Can some uses in the online classroom not be allowed via the TEACH Act but be allowed under Fair Use?  Yes.  It's a mess.  I invite you to read this page on the TEACH Act at U of Texas and pay specific attention to this paragraph:

"Fair use also remains important because the in-classroom activities (even if the classroom is virtual) the TEACH Act authorizes are a small subset of the uses of online resources educators may wish to make. It only covers in class performances and displays, not, for example, supplemental online reading, viewing, or listening materials. For those activities, as well as many others, we'll need to continue to rely on fair use..... So, fair use will likely be very helpful for using music and movies in the classroom and as supplementary materials. See the fair use guide for more information."



Some copyrighted materials may be included but only if the instructor AND the college/district provides the following.:

  • The educational institution must have a policy on the use of copyrighted materials and must provide informational resources about copyright to staff and students. 
  • There must be technological controls in place to ensure that only students enrolled in the class have access and to prevent students from downloading and distributing the material.
  • Students must be informed that the materials are protected by copyright.
  • The use of the material must be analogous to use within a face-to-face classroom, with the teacher supervising the use – i.e., the teacher can’t be just compiling a resource page of materials for independent learning.
  • Materials marketed for the purpose of distance education (like electronic textbooks) are excluded. 


Creative Commons License "Copyright and Distance Learning" by Internet Education Foundation and iKeepSafe is licensed under CC BY 4.0

DRMs are technological mechanisms that protect the copyrights for digital materials.  Some examples may include:

  • the inability to burn a DVD or CD
  • the inability to download media
  • necessary access codes
  • authentication of subscribed user

Anytime you illegally circumvent these protections in order to share, display, or perform in the online classroom, you are in violation of copyright laws.  Additionally, illegally circumventing DRM is a violation in and of itself, even for personal use.

  • Take advantage of Fair Use in the classroom.  Non-profit education is one of the favored situations.  Think of Fair Use as mainly an in-person classroom protection, however.  And not everything goes.  You must still evaluate whether or not  your use meets all four criteria in the checklist in order to qualify.
  • Link out to open web resources wherever possible by using your course Canvas shell for any readings, even in face to face courses--there are pedagogical, financial, and legal reasons to do this.  One caveat: if RCC subscribes to an article, use our permalinks for more stable use of content and to ensure our subscription budgets don't shrink
  • Look for material with open licensing--Creative Commons Licensing or those items that are in the Public Domain (LOC is great for images).  Even better--make your whole class OER or ZTC.
  • Ask your librarians for help!  Searching for resources is one (of many ;) ) things that we are great at.  If you are currently using a PDF in your class, let us help you replace it with legal alternative access.
  • Copy stuff
    • EX. paste whole chunks of copyrighted material into your lecture
  • Use PDFs unless you created them with your own material
    • EX. don't make copies of a chapter of a book you want them to read
  • Link out to a known illegal copy of something.  You place your students' computers and legal protections at risk.
    • EX. You send your students a link because you heard through the grape vine that one of Cengage's 2023 very expensive textbooks is available for free in a PDF. There is a 99.9% chance this is a pirated copy. If you want to save your students money, adopt an OER or otherwise legally licensed free textbook.
    • EX. If you want them to watch a 48 hours mystery, make sure it is posted by 48 hours, not "CrimeJunkie2023"
  • Forget to cite any material you use with full proper citation, just as you ask your students to properly cite their work.
    • EX.Passing out a short poem to go over in class?  Include citation information on the document, even if you verbally tell them where it is from
  • Believe that Fair Use covers everything.  It doesn't.  Use the checklist.
  • Believe that there is a magic number or percentage that you just need to stay under in order to be in compliance.  There is no magic percentage.
    • EX.  "I'm only making a PDF of a single chapter of this book and the book has 11 chapters. So that's legal b/c I'm under 10%."  No.
  • Choose to use older editions of books to try to save your students money.  While noble in thought, it's more likely to end up in a bad situation due to illegal copies and the difficulty of us and the bookstore to purchase for legal copies.
    • EX. There is a new edition of this book that costs $300 but if I have them use the edition from 2000, it's just as good and will be cheaper.  Not necessarily.  It can often be more.  And it can often lead your students to need to find it via illegal online copies.
  • Show an entire movie in an online environment unless it is a movie we have licensed to link to or embed.
    • EX.  You really love a Ken Burns documentary but you can't find it in the library's streaming video collection.  You decide to have a "viewing party" in your Canvas shell and open up a zoom room, share  your screen, and play the video from your personal Netflix account.  There are licenses for viewing parties you can purchase from Netflix.  Circumventing that is a violation.
    • EX. What about if I do it with a DVD the library has?  While movies can be played in a f2f class if they meet all the criteria of the FAIR USE checklist, they cannot be played in their entirety in an online environment by most people's understanding of copyright.
  • Ever override DCRMs in an effort to provide a "copy" of a video you personally own.  Copying it is a violation of DCRM and then showing it compounds the problem due to copyright violations.
    • EX. You've got a great video you want to show your students but your class is asynchronous.  What about if you make a digital copy of your DVD and post the file in your Canvas?  Nope.  Your DVD came with legal protections against just this kind of instance.
  • Make classroom handouts of copyrighted material without permission of the owner unless it is a spur of the moment thing. ie., you saw an article just this morning that came out last week and you want to share it in class.  If you use the same article in a subsequent semester, you are in violation.  You've had time to seek permission from the owner or find licensed means of distribution.
  • Showing any streaming media, making clips to share with students, even using a physical item in an online class is far more complicated.  For streaming media, make sure you have to proper licensing--use the library's video service.  Don't make clips of movies and don't link to clips that aren't put online via proper channels. 
    • EX. You just want them to watch one scene from Les Mis.  Since it's a small clip and it's on YouTube, it must be fine, right?  Not if it was put up by "Francofilecheesehead."  You would need to ensure the clip was uploaded by the distribution company for the film.
  • All other materials that are not addressed under the TEACH Act, my still be used if allowed under the 4 part Fair Use test. It is the nature of the ease of distribution of copyright materials in the online environment that dictates the greater restrictions.  If the TEACH Act addresses your concern, great.  If not, go back to the Fair Use test and see if it passes all 4 criteria, paying special attention to the whether using it can harm the market (by being easily distributed).