Implications of Copyright Law in Education


As teachers, we are provided with a curriculum, scope and sequence and resources to develop unit plans, lessons and activities to help students develop mastery of a particular set of grade-level standards. Most educators augment and enhance their lessons using external resources. However, understanding what can be used, how it can used, and what can be shared in and outside the confines of the four walls of the classroom is not always a straightforward process. Understandably, “many teachers have become fearful of using materials they did not create themselves” (Robinson, Brown, & Green, p. 78). It is therefore imperative that we equip educators with clear guidance how copyright law applies to schools and include similar professional development in every preservice education program.


Copyright law was created to protect the rights of the original author of a work and its United States origin are in the in the Constitution authorizing the government “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” (U.S. Const. art. I, 8, § 8.). Two years later in May 1790, Congress enacted the first federal copyright law … and the first work was registered within two weeks (U.S. Copyright Office, n.d.). However, one could argue that the history of copyright law originated with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the late fifteenth century greatly increasing the ease and speed to mass reproduce original work (ARL, n.d.).

Most original work including work even work that has not been published is protected under copyright law (“What Does Copyright Protect?”, n.d.). There are however several exceptions including “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery” (U.S. Code title 17, 1 § 102b). Additionally, copyright protection expires after a specific amount of time enabling the work to enter the public domain. Originally, the term of expiration lasted only 28 years which was later doubled by the mid-20th century (Lee, 2015). This has since been greatly extended due to the lobbying efforts from the music and motion picture industry most famously by Disney in an effort to protect the rights of Mickey Mouse (Schlackman, 2017).

The fair use doctrine to the copyright act and the Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act have both been created to provide greater flexibility for limited use of copyright material, particularly in education. Fair use guidelines permit educators to “use of portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of classroom instruction that are finite in duration” (Robinson, Brown, & Green, pp. 88). The TEACH act provides additional clarity for the use of digital copyright materials (Crews, n.d.).


The rise of high-profile copyright litigation cases (Baskin, 2015; Holpuch, 2016) and the explosion of “technology makes it easier than ever to reproduce print, audio, video, and electronic materials” (Simpson, 2001/2012). Many teachers avoid using these materials “for fear of violating copyright”, while others misunderstand fair use believing it provides “complete protection from prosecution” (Robinson, Brown, & Green, pp. 85). To help university professors, the California State University Long Branch library created an online research guide for copyright and fair use with 27 unique scenarios to help professors develop a practical understanding for how to use the fair use doctrine (“Research Guides: Copyright…”, n.d.). School districts, educational stakeholder organizations, and the U.S. Copyright Office should follow suite and develop clear and simple guidance with examples so educators can be informed and use without fear the myriad of resources available today.