Education World answers the question "What can my students and I freely use in our lessons, presentations, workshops, newsletters, reports, and Web sites, and what is protected by copyright?" Included: A tour of the public domain!
Have you ever ...
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you're probably a terrific teacher! You might also be a copyright scofflaw!
However altruistic your motives, the materials used in the above examples are protected by copyright -- and copyright law states that the owner of any tangible creative work has the sole right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, transmit, or transform that work. Therefore, unless you had the permission of the copyright owner or owners, your use of the materials constituted copyright infringement.
"But everybody does it!" you gasp.
"I've always done it!" you protest.
"No one ever said it was illegal!" you plead. "How can I be guilty of anything?"
"People routinely get away with illegal copying in the classroom for the same reason that people get away with speeding on the interstate," said John Adsit, online education coordinator for Jefferson County Schools in Golden, Colorado. "There aren't enough police watching them."
"Not long ago," Adsit recalled, "a teacher in our area was happily showing a movie in class, using one of his department's many DVD copies. It was a movie he and his colleagues had shown for years, with no second thoughts. How was he to know that one of his students was the daughter of the movie's producer?"
"The ensuing lawsuit was most instructive," Adsit added.
Copyright, according to Dictionary.com, is "the legal right granted to an author, a composer, a playwright, a publisher, or a distributor to exclusive publication, production, sale, or distribution of a literary, musical, dramatic, or artistic work."
Copyright laws are based on the belief that anyone who creates an original, tangible work deserves to be compensated for that work, that compensation encourages more creative works, and that society as a whole benefits from the creative efforts of its members. Copyright laws, therefore, are designed to protect a creator's right to be compensated and to control how his or her work is used.
According to the law, copyrightable work must be tangible.
A great joke told -- or a great song sung -- isn't protected by copyright until it's written down or recorded.
Copyrightable work must also be creative.
Facts are not copyrightable -- although a clever collection of facts might be. Ideas are not copyrightable -- although a particular expression of an idea probably is.
Educators often ask the question "What can my students and I freely use in our lessons, presentations, workshops, newsletters, reports, and Web sites, and what is protected by copyright?"
The short answer is that nearly every original, tangible expression is copyrighted immediately upon creation. An author does not have to register the work, announce that the work is copyright protected, or display the copyright symbol to enjoy copyright protection. All he or she must do is create an original work in tangible form.
In fact, the list of works that are not copyright protected is surprisingly short. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, that list includes only
The only other tangible works that are not afforded copyright protection are works in the public domain. Even that body of work is nowhere near as extensive as is commonly believed. In the United States, for example, the public domain includes
Because of the duration of copyright protection established in the 1976 revision of the U.S. Copyright Act, no works published after January 1, 1978, will pass into the public domain until at least 2048. Even anonymous works are copyright protected until 95 years after publication!
For a quick look at when works published in the United States pass into the public domain, see When Works Pass Into the Public Domain, by Lolly Gasaway, at the University of North Carolina.
Most copyright experts recommend this rule of thumb -- when in doubt, assume a work is copyrighted and ask permission to use it. Don't make the common mistake of believing that including quotation marks or a line of attribution satisfies copyright requirements. If you properly quote and/or credit a work's author, experts say, you cannot be accused of plagiarism, but you may still be accused of copyright infringement.
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Editor's Note: The information contained in this article is, to the best of our knowledge, correct and up-to-date. Copyright laws and the circumstances surrounding the use of copyrighted materials can be difficult to interpret, however, and information in this article should not be construed as legal advice.
Article by Linda Starr
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