K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

Learn more about copyright

Copyright: A primer
Includes most of the text of our reference articles on copyright and fair use, plus a section on Creative Commons. Topics covered include copyright law, limitations and exceptions to copyright...
Format: document/article
Copyright guidelines for publishing
In Web Publishing & Collaboration Guide, page 3.1
When you publish a work on the web, one of the following three cases must apply: You must have created the work; You must have permission from the creator or copyright holder; or The work must be free of copyright. (By...
Format: article
Web Publishing & Collaboration Guide
LEARN NC works collaboratively with educators and other individuals from a variety of backgrounds to develop web-based resources for teachers and students. This manual guides educators through the process of developing content for publication on the web, including writing, design, technical guidelines, and copyright.
Format: book (multiple pages)
Obtaining permission for copyrighted materials
In Web Publishing & Collaboration Guide, page 3.5
If your desired use of a copyrighted work does not fall under fair use and the work is not licensed for public use, you must ask permission before using it. Be sure to think through carefully what...
Format: article
By David Walbert.
Copyright for educators
In Web Publishing & Collaboration Guide, page 3.2
This article explains copyright and U.S. copyright law primarily with respect to education. For a full discussion of copyright law and its implications, consult the U.S. Copyright Office. Rights reserved to...
Format: article
By David Walbert.

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A form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works. Copyright protection reserves certain exclusive rights to the author of a work, including rights of reproduction and public performance.

See also fair use.

This article explains copyright and U.S. copyright law primarily with respect to education. For a full discussion of copyright law and its implications, consult the U.S. Copyright Office.

Copyright law

Rights reserved to authors

Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do the following:

  • To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright. (However, these rights are not unlimited in scope; see Limitations on Copyright, below.)

Who can claim copyright

Copyright protection begins automatically as soon as a work is created in fixed form. Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not required. This means that any written document, drawing, or photograph, whether published or not, may be eligible for copyright. Only the author or creator of the work (or those deriving their rights through the author or creator) can claim copyright.

Copyright registration

Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not required for an author to claim copyright. However, registration makes it easier to sue for monetary damages when copyright is infringed.

Copyright notice

Prior to 1989, notice was required for a work to be protected by copyright. This is no longer the case, but the rule may still apply to works created before 1989. Additionally, a copyright notice serves as fair warning of the work’s status. If someone infringes on a copyright (by reprinting the work, for example), he or she may plead innocent infringement if no copyright notice was given. If copyright notice was given, the infringer cannot plead ignorance.

A typical copyright notice contains the symbol ©, the year of first publication, and the name of the copyright holder, for example © 2005 John C. Doe. The use of the copyright notice does not require permission from the U.S. Copyright Office.

Limitations on copyright

Copyright protection is not unlimited. Terms of copyright are limited, and individuals retain certain "fair use" rights to copyrighted work.

Expiration of copyright

Under current U.S. copyright law, most works are automatically protected from the moment of their creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author’s life plus an additional 70 years after the author’s death. Consult the U.S. Copyright Office for details.

Fair use

Fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and "transformative" purpose such as commentary, criticism, or parody. "Fair" uses do not require permission from the copyright owner. For a full explanation of fair use, see our reference entry.

Other educational use

Section 110(1) of the Copyright Act explicitly permits teachers and students in a nonprofit educational institution to perform or display any copyrighted work in the course of face-to-face teaching activities. In face-to-face instruction, such teachers and students may act out a play, read aloud a poem, display a cartoon or a slide, or play a videotape so long as the copy of the videotape was lawfully obtained. In essence, Section 110(1) permits performance and display of any kind of copyrighted work, and even a complete work, as a part of face-to-face instruction.

Distance learning. The 2002 TEACH Act extended this permission to certain distance learning environments, but with additional restrictions to ensure that the work is used only in an instructional context and that (in the case of performances of audiovisual works) the work cannot be illegally downloaded by students or further distributed. The TEACH Toolkit from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte provides detailed information and guidelines on the use of copyrighted works in distance learning environments.

Warning! This provision does not permit teachers to make and distribute copies of works. It extends only to performances and displays of single copies of a work. Also be certain that your display or performance of the work is exclusively instructional; the showing of a film on the last day of school for entertainment purposes may not fall under this provision and is not covered by fair use.

A chart of copyright and fair use guidelines for classrooms is available from Hall Davidson.

Works not eligible for copyright

Several categories of material are generally not eligible for federal copyright protection. These include:

  • Works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded)
  • 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, explanation, or illustration
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources)

With regard to education, a lesson plan that is written down and published is eligible for copyright protection in its written form, but the ideas and/or teaching strategies described by the written plan are generally not eligible for copyright and hence can be borrowed or used by another teacher in his/her teaching.

Common copyright violations

The internet and related technologies have not changed the principles behind copyright law, but they have made it easier to unknowingly violate the law. Additionally, although fair use allows for personal and educational use, it is easy for teachers and students to overstep the provisions of fair use.

  • Posting something to the public web is legally considered to be publication. If you post copyrighted material, such as an image, to a website where anyone can view it, without specific permission, you are infringing upon copyright. This includes material already published on the web! You may, however, provide a link to the copyrighted material if it is available on the web.
  • If students use copyrighted material such as images in reports or in-class multimedia presentations, the teacher may not publish those reports or multimedia presentations to a school website.
  • Distributing a copyrighted resource via email, especially over a listserve or discussion list, may be a violation of copyright.
  • Photocopying an article or other resource for personal use generally falls under fair use, as does asking students to make copies; but making multiple copies and distributing them, even in a classroom setting may not fall under fair use.

Works available for use

Many works, copyrighted or not, are available to the public for various kinds of use, including republication and distribution.

The public domain

The public domain comprises works "owned by the people" and not covered by copyright. Works may enter the public domain in various ways:

  • Material not eligible for copyright (see above) is in the public domain by default.
  • When the copyright on a work expires, it enters the public domain. It is then "owned by the people" and may be used by anyone for any purpose.
  • Works created by the United States government or by its employees as directed work are exempted by U.S. Copyright Law and are thus in the public domain.
  • Occasionally, a work’s creator may freely release it to the public domain. However, this is rare. The lack of a copyright notice does not mean that a work is in the public domain!

Once a work is in the public domain, it is in the public domain forever (there have been exeptions, but they are rare). If material in the public domain is incorporated into a new work, only the parts of the new work that are original are eligible for copyright. To take a fairly trivial example, the creator of a photographic calendar owns rights only to the original part of the calendar — the photographs — and not to the names of days or months!

Public licenses

Any copyright holder may license a work to individuals or the public for various uses. A license permits the licensee to exercise some or all of the author’s exclusive rights in the work in a limited fashion defined by the terms of the license. Most licenses require payment and are granted to individuals for specific purposes. For example, when you buy a DVD, you are granted a license to view the film at home, but you are not permitted to show the work publicly or to make copies; these rights are retained by the copyright holder. A theater company may purchase a license to perform a play but that license may not grant the right to videotape the performance.

A public license, by contrast, is typically granted free of charge to anyone who wishes to obtain it, and grants broad rights to use and/or distribution. Public licenses are a boon to educators, because they permit broad use of a work without reliance on fair use.

Open source software

Open source refers to software applications that may be freely run, distributed, and modified. Most open source software is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL), which grants recipients the following rights, or "freedoms":

  • the freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  • the freedom to study how the program works, and modify it (if the source code is made available).
  • the freedom to redistribute copies.
  • the freedom to improve the program, and release the improvements to the public (if the source code is made available).

Additionally, the GPL requires that copies and derivative works of software licensed under the GPL be itself licensed under the GPL. This legal mechanism, sometimes called "copyleft," ensures that open source software will remain open source.

Other open source software, such as the Firefox web browser, is licensed under various other public licenses. Some software is made available under several different public licenses. Additionally, some software, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, is made available under a more restrictive public license that does not permit modification.

Open source vs. shareware. Open source software is not the same as shareware, which is software made available by its creators for public use with the expectation that those who find it useful will make a (usually small) one-time payment. Shareware is distributed on the honor system, but continuing to use shareware after a stated trial period may be a violation of copyright.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that offers a flexible licensing system for creative work. Its licenses are designed for authors and artists who do not intend to profit from their work and wish it to be widely used and shared. Creative Commons licenses use the slogan "Some Rights Reserved" to distinguish them from the typical copyright notice "All Rights Reserved."

Creative Commons licenses are public licenses available free of charge to anyone. They allow anyone to use, republish, or distribute a work in any medium. Creators may place any or all of the following restrictions on the use of their work:

  • Attribution. The creator permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give credit in the manner requested.
  • Noncommercial. The creator permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work — and derivative works based upon it — but for noncommercial purposes only.
  • No Derivative Works. The creator permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of the work, not derivative works based upon it.
  • Share Alike. The creator permits others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs the original work.

Finding resources you can use

Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean you can use it! But there are several places on the web where you can find images and other content you and your students can freely use in your classroom and on class projects — even projects you want to publish to a website or otherwise distribute — without having to worry about fair use.

Materials available under Creative Commons license

If you or your students want to find resources such as photographs to use in classroom projects that may be published to the web or otherwise distributed, try looking for resources licensed under Creative Commons. Many excellent photogrophers and artists make their work available under Creative Commons licenses.

  • Creative Commons provides a searchable directory of authors and artists who have registered their work with the organization.
  • The photo sharing website Flickr provides searchable access to images licensed under Creative Commons.

Materials in the public domain

You cannot assume that because an image or other resource is made available on the website of a U.S. government agency (such as the Library of Congress), it was necessarily created by the federal government and is therefore in the public domain. However, government websites provide a good place to start looking for materials in the public domain.

  • All images created by NASA are in the public domain and may be freely used. Try the Image of the Day Gallery as a place to start.
  • Many, but not all, of the images available through American Memory were created by the U.S. government and are in the public domain. Look for works created by various federal agencies and projects such as the Federal Writers Project, the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, and the Office of War Information. Be sure to read the copyright notices carefully (look for the link to "Rights and Reproductions.")

Permission to use copyrighted materials

If your desired use of a copyrighted work does not fall under fair use and the work is not licensed for public use, you must ask permission before using it. Be sure to think through carefully what you will want or need to do with the material and to request all the permissions you will need! If the owner of copyrighted material grants you specific permissions, that does not constitute a blanket grant to do what you like with the material. For example, if you obtain permission to include a photograph in a printed class anthology, you may not additionally post the anthology on your school’s website unless you obtain separate permission for web use! Most copyright holders are willing to help teachers and students, however, so long as the request is reasonable.

Permission request letters

A permission request should include the following:

  • Any information needed to identify the original work, such as author and/or editor, title, edition, copyright date, volume and issue number, etc. If the work is available on the web, provide the URL.
  • The exact material to be used, including page numbers, chapter, etc. If possible, include a photocopy of the material you wish to use.
  • How you will distribute the copies — on the web, in a newsletter, in a printed anthology of student work, etc.
  • The number of copies to be made, if applicable.
  • Whether or not you intend to sell the material.

Be sure to address your letter to the proper person — make sure that the person giving you permission is in fact the copyright owner!

A sample permission request letter is available from the Consortium for Educational Technology in University Systems (CETUS).

If the material you wish to use is on the web, an email request for permission is appropriate.

Examples and resources

A comic book-style presentation that explores “the impacts of intellectual property on creativity — specifically, documentary film.” Follow the heroine as she “navigates the twists and turns of intellectual property. Bound By Law reaches beyond documentary film to provide a commentary on the most pressing issues facing law, art, property and an increasingly digital world of remixed culture.” From the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Duke University Law School.