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Copyright, Fair Use, Infringement... Oh My!

March 25, 2019

Ever seen a teacher by the copy machine whiting out the words "do not duplicate" on the bottom of the page in the workbook they are copying? As educators we have all heard about copyright, copyright infringement and fair use, but most educators brush off copyright laws (as they make copies after copies of that copyrighted workbook) assuming it is fair use because they are using in for educational purposes. According to Maddox (1995) the Copyright Act is one of the least understood laws that affects school teachers. If teachers aren't fully understanding the Copyright Act, then it is to be expected that they also don't understand the Fair Use Doctrine, which outlines critical exceptions to copyright law. Carnes (2011) calls the Fair Use Doctrine "one of the most widely misunderstood" and "one of the murkiest areas of copyright law" (para. 1). 


So.... What exactly does copyright and all the other copyright terms mean and how are they used?

The U.S. Copyright Office (2017) defines these terms as:


Copyright is a form of protection provided by U.S. law to authors of original works of authorship from the time the works are created in a fixed form. An example of copyright would be the Jurassic Park, which is copyrighted and all rights reserved to Universal Studios. 


Fair Use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. An example of fair use would be a teacher using an article for educational purposes with her students in her nonprofit classroom. 


Plagiarism is when someone takes someone else's words, thoughts, ideas or creations and presents them as their own without crediting the original person. An example of plagiarism would be a student writing a paper over the Civil War and finding a previous student's paper on the same topic and copying the other student's words and thoughts for their own paper. 


Copyright Infringement is when one or more rights that are given to a copyright owner is breached by someone else using the work without permission or approval. An example of copyright infringement is a student who accesses the Internet and downloads movies, videos, or music using torrent software (such as µTorrent), or a website (such as ThePirateBay) illegally. 


Attribution is when someone gives credit to the copyright owner when it is used. An example of attribution would be someone who puts the author's name under the photo they are using in their blog post, along with the website they got the photo from. 


Transformation is when someone takes an original copyrighted work and transforms its appearance or nature to a certain extent that it no longer qualifies as copyright infringement and is instead considered fair use. An example of transformation would be taking a hit song and changing the lyrics to make a parody.


Public Domain is a work of authorship that is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner. An example of public domain would be Darwin's book "On the Origin of Species" because it was first published in the United States in 1860 and all works publish before 1923 have expired into public domain.



Why even bother using copyrighted materials in your classroom when there are so many copyright laws and exceptions? Because these materials can greatly enhance the learning and teaching process. 


Remember research before the creation of the world wide web? Back when the cringe-worthy research process consisted of digging through a card catalog and searching for a single book on rows of dusty shelves. I remember writing my first research paper in the third grade, over a rainforest animal, and being forced to change my animal several times due to the lack of resources my small-town elementary library had. Fast-forward 10 years to my first college research paper and it is evident that times have changed with access to educational resources greatly improved due to technology. Fast-forward 10 more years to my time as an educator in the classroom and you can see that the evolution of the Internet has granted access to more resources, literature and informational data than ever before.


According to Renee Hobbs (2010) “the effective use of copyrighted materials enhances the teaching and learning process” (pg. 5) which I believe has always been true, but especially in today’s educational setting. When teachers use copyrighted materials appropriately, digital or hard-copy, they provide the learners with an enhanced and enriched learning experience. An experience where students can visualize concepts and ideas by using factual based information and every day scenarios to put those concepts and ideas into perspective and gain a deeper understanding of what is being taught. 


The effective use of any material can enhance the teaching and learning process – the tricky part is knowing how to use copyrighted materials appropriately and taking note of the laws surrounding those protected materials. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes the law and educators cannot simply say they were unaware of copyright or fair use laws as an excuse to use those materials inappropriately.


As educators we need to not only teach students how to appropriately use and credit the copyrighted materials they are using to enhance their research and learning process, but also model that behavior with the copyrighted materials we use to enhance our teaching process.




McJohn, S. M. (2015). Copyright: Examples and explanations. (4th ed.). New York, NY: Wolters Kluwer.


Carnes, D. (2011). For profit vs non-profit copyright laws and fair use issues. Retrieved from


Hobbs, R. (2010). Copyright Clarity: How fair use supports digital learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


Lakhan, S. & Khurana, M. (2008). Intellectual property, copyright, and fair use in education. Journal of Academic Leadership, 6(4). Retrieved from


Maddox, J. W. (1995). Copyright violation and personal liability in education: a current look at fair use. BYU Journal of Public Law, 8(3), 101-108. Retrieved from


Starr, L. (2015). Is fair use a license to steal?. Education World. Retrieved from


U.S. Copyright Office.  (2017).  Copyright basics. Retrieved from

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