Search form

Copyrights and Copying Wrongs

Part 1 of a Series on Copyright and Fair Use




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 ...

  • incorporated an innovative online graph into a math teaching master?
  • copied a video documentary to show during a classroom history lesson?
  • created a science unit by combining a variety of text and online resources?
  • posted to your school Web site a class picture taken by School Photos Inc.?

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.



Quick Copyright Facts

* All tangible creative works are protected by copyright immediately upon creation.

* Quoting or crediting the author of a copied work does not satisfy copyright requirements.

*When in doubt about either the copyright status of a work or the appropriateness of your use of that work, get permission.

If you prefer to learn from someone else's "instructive" lawsuits rather than your own, you probably need to know a little more about copyright law than you do right now. Start with the basics.

Copyright, according to, 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.

U.S. copyright law, found in Title 17 of the United States Code, establishes broad criteria for copyright protection.

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

  • works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression.
  • titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents.
  • ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices -- as distinguished from a description, an explanation, or an illustration.
  • works consisting entirely of information that is common property and contains no original authorship, such as standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources.


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

  • works published before January 1, 1923.
  • works published between 1923 and 1978 that did not contain a valid copyright notice.
  • works published between 1923 and 1978 for which the copyright was not renewed.
  • works authored by employees of the federal government.
  • works that the copyright owner has freely granted to the public domain.

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.




The Educator's Guide to Copyright and Fair Use
Part 1: Copyrights and Copying Wrongs
Part 2: Is Fair Use a License to Steal?
Part 3: Copyright Law and New Technologies
Part 4: Applying Fair Use to New Technologies
Part 5: District Liability and Teaching Responsibility




Click here to return to the main page of the Education World copyright series.

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
Education World®
Copyright © Education World



Updated 05/25/2010