What You Need to Know

You probably have an idea of what copyright is, but do you really understand it? It is important for you to know the basics so you can set a good example for your students.

Think about it. These days it is very easy to reproduce material, and copyright is becoming increasingly important. As a teacher, you are not exempt from copyright laws. Be careful when selecting the materials you use in your classroom to avoid copyright trouble.

Copyright Law

Copyright gives legal protections to intangible things (like a song or a book). This means that you can get in just as much trouble for stealing someone's song as you can for stealing her purse.

Copyright is actually a codified right in the Constitution: "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." The specifics of the law are contained in the Copyright Act of 1976, which lays out all of the rights of copyright holders, as well as the provisions of "fair use." This is of particular importance to teachers.

Fair Use

Fair use is part of the Copyright Act that allows for certain uses of copyrighted materials without the copyright owner’s permission. This is what allows scholarship, review, commentary, and criticism of works. You can reproduce something for the purpose of analyzing or criticizing it, and fair use also specifically allows for multiple classroom copies of a work.

Fair use is considered on a case-by-case basis; if someone sues you for copyright infringement, and the court finds that it was infringement, you can use fair use as a defense. The court then considers these four factors:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantially of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

As you can see, the “nonprofit educational purpose” is right at the top, and the first factor is usually considered to be the most important.

So - What Can Be Copied for Classroom Use?

Here are a few guidelines from House Report 94-1476, clarifying the minimum standards of educational fair use.

Single Copies

For research or preparation for a class, a teacher can copy book chapters, magazine and newspaper articles, short stories and poems, diagrams, and pictures.

Multiple Copies

A teacher can make multiple copies (one per pupil in a course) of something for classroom use or discussion, as long as:

  1. Poems are less than 250 words and two pages, prose is less than 2,500 words or an excerpt, and only one diagram/picture is copied from a single work.
  2. The copying is at the inspiration of the individual teacher and it would be unreasonable to take the time to get permission to use the work.
  3. The copying is only for the one class
  4. There is no more than one poem/article/story or two excerpts copied from the same author or more than three from the same collective work during one class term.
  5. There are no more than nine instances of multiple copying for one class during its term.


Wistrom, E. (Ed.). (2012, April 5). Copyright Law for Teachers: What You Need to Know About Fair Use, Making Copies & More. Retrieved March 18, 2015, from