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Schools, the Internet, and Copyright Law

Except for the occasional plagiarized passage or unattributed reference in student research papers, most veteran K-12 educators have had little experience dealing with copyright issues in their classrooms. With the advent of the Internet, however, their need to know about copyright law and to understand its implications for such activities as Internet research, downloading programs and documents, creating class Web sites, and installing software on school networks has increased dramatically. Most reference materials on the subject, however, are so buried in legal gobbledygook and cloaked in ambiguity that it takes a copyright expert to interpret it all. Luckily, Education World has found one! Read on as educator and copyright attorney Nancy Willard discusses the kinds of educational activities that risk copyright infringement and provides strategies for minimizing that risk. Included: A sample Web site management chart and a sample copyright permission request form

When teachers and students use the Internet, they have access to a wide variety of material -- much of which may be protected by copyright law. Both educators and their students need to be aware of the kinds of activities that risk copyright infringement and they need to develop strategies to minimize that risk. Common classroom practices that should raise concerns about copyright infringement -- and strategies to address those concerns -- include the following.

Downloading copyrighted material from the Internet and using it in a way that violates the rights of the copyright owner.

A large amount of material that is either in the public domain or that has been made available for classroom use is available on educational Web sites. Such material can be freely used or used in accordance with the designated requirements. Other online material remains fully protected under copyright law. The standard Fair Use Guidelines for Educators should be followed for that latter type of material.

Allowing students to use the district Internet system to download copyrighted material, such as MP3 files of popular music.
Districts must closely evaluate Web traffic to ensure that students are not using the district Internet system as a vehicle to exchange copyrighted materials. Such activity would result in a significant amount of traffic and should be easily detectable by an astute system administrator.

Material posted on the district's public Web site in violation of copyright law.
School districts must be very careful about the copyright status of any material posted on their Web sites. The following strategy can address potential liability concerns and assist teachers and students in gaining a better understanding of copyright laws:

  • Include provisions in the district Internet use policy that address copyright infringement and other potential areas of Web site liability.
  • Place a Web Site Concerns link on the district Web site and on each school Web site. Link to a statement that says:
  • XYZ District seeks to ensure that all materials placed on the district or school Web sites are placed in accord with copyright law and do not infringe on the rights of, or harm others, in any way. To accomplish this, we are taking the following steps:
    • We have provisions in our Internet use policy that address copyright, defamation, harassment, invasion of privacy, and other harmful speech. [Link to the district policy.]
    • We have established Web site management procedures to review materials prior to their placement on the Web site. [Link to district Web site procedures.]
    • We will promptly respond to any issues of concern. If you have a concern about material placed on our Web site, please contact us. [Link to the e-mail address of the appropriate administrator.]
  • Establish Web site management procedures to address copyright issues for all Web pages placed on a district Web site. Prior to placement on a district Web site, all individual components of the Web page should be identified in a Web site management chart, noting the source and copyright status of each component. The material should meet one of the following criteria:
    * Original Material: Material created for the Web page by a teacher or student. This material should bear the copyright notice of the teacher or student.
    * Public Domain Material: Material created by the federal government, material placed in the public domain by the copyright owner, or material for which the copyright has expired.
    * Fair Use: The standard Fair Use Guidelines for Educators do not apply to material posted on school Web sites. However, fair use does apply if the purpose is transformative, including use of the material for review, criticism, or parody.
    * Permission Granted for Use: Material that includes permission for general use or material that the copyright owner has specifically granted permission to use.

    Sample Copyright Permission Request Template

    Dear [Name],
    I am a student/staff at [name of school]. I would like to use [specific description of the material] in the following manner [specific description of how the material will be used]. Do you hold the copyright on this material? If you hold the copyright, may I have your permission to use your material in this way? If you grant permission to copy this material, I will properly reference your ownership by [describe how ownership will be referenced]. I need to have your answer by [date].

Software used in violation of copyright law.
Another technology-related, although not specifically Internet-related, area in which districts run a risk of liability that regards the violation of copyright or licensing agreements in the use of software. The Software Industry and Information Association provides excellent recommendations for the establishment of effective software management programs in schools.


Recognizing and respecting the copyright status of works created by students is another important, and often neglected, aspect of copyright that schools need to consider. Students should learn about the rights they have as creators and about how copyright laws help protect those rights. All student-created works that are published by the school should include a copyright notice with the student's name (older students) or unique student identifier (younger students). When students understand that copyright laws protect their personal interests, they will be more inclined to respect the copyright rights of other creators.

Web Site Management Chart
Material Copyright Status Rationale or Basis
1. photos of XYZ original material created by teacher
2. article about ABC permission granted created by teacher
3. drawing of EFG public domain found in book published in 1909, title page attached

Copyright law reflects an important balance between the rights of the creators and the benefits to society resulting from the creation and dissemination of creative works. It is important to keep this balance in mind when addressing copyright in schools.

For more information about kids and copyright, see the Education World Educator's Guide to Copyright and Fair Use series.

About the Author
Nancy E. Willard holds a bachelor's of science degree in elementary education, a master's of science degree in special education, and a law degree. Before focusing her professional attention on issues of children's behavior, technology, and schools, she taught children with behavior difficulties and practiced computer and copyright law.

Willard is director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. The program's mission is to develop and disseminate strategies to assist young people in acquiring the knowledge, decision-making skills, motivation, and self-control to behave in a safe, responsible, and legal manner when using the Internet and other information technologies.

Willard is the author of Computer Ethics, Etiquette, and Safety for the 21st Century Student, published by the International Society for Technology in Education. She also is the author of Supporting the Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet: A Children's Internet Protection Act Planning Guide.

Article by Nancy Willard
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