Copyright Law & Education

By Cindy Hill
Copyright Law & Education
Cindy Hill

Understanding fair use exceptions relevant to copyrighted materials used in the classroom helps avoid illegal copyright violations, and helps students develop respect for the intellectual property rights of others. Reference to copyright laws in the course of educational instruction also aids students in recognizing their copyright interests in works of their own creation, which enhances their pride of ownership in the creative process.


Copyright is the intangible intellectual property right which a person owns in works of her own creation. The U.S. Constitution, Article I Section 8, states that Congress has the power "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 copyright statute gives the person who originates a creative work the sole right to publish, distribute, copy, perform, and display the work, and to make derivative works or sequels to it.


Copyright attaches the minute a creative work--writing, painting, composition, sculpture--is fixed in a tangible medium. Copyright protections do not attach to an idea in a person's mind, but the minute she sketches that idea on a napkin or drafts the words onto a page, that creative work is copyrighted. Although registration with the U.S. Copyright Office aids in protecting against copyright infringement, copyright attaches without registration.


Use of copyrighted materials in the classroom does not automatically exclude that use from copyright laws. Educational materials presented by teachers or incorporated into students' work must respect copyright laws unless the work is in the public domain or the use meets the limited definition of the copyright statute's fair use exemption. Attribution and citation does not make a copyright infringement lawful.

Fair Use

The copyright statute states that fair uses of copyrighted material will not comprise a copyright infringement. These uses may include teaching, scholarship, and research, but only upon weighing four factors: the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the work; the portion of the work used relative to the size of the entire work; and the effect of the use on the work's commercial value. Use of a textbook in a classroom would likely meet the first factor of being a nonprofit educational use. However, photocopying the entire text rather than having students purchase the book would almost certainly fail to meet the remaining four factors, and comprise a copyright violation.


The copyright statute permits libraries and archives, including school facilities, to distribute copyrighted works as lending materials. The law also allows libraries and archives to make one copy of each copyrighted work in their collection for non-commercial, preservation purposes. Preservation copies must be clearly marked with a notice that the copy was made under this portion of the copyright statute.

Exempt Displays

Copyrighted works may legally be performed or displayed in the classroom if that performance or display is under the teacher's supervision, is substantively related to the current teaching activities, and is limited from further distribution. This exemption does not apply if the copyrighted work was illegally obtained, such as by recording a movie off a television broadcast or inappropriately downloading music or videos from the internet. Before broadcasting television shows or on-line media in the classroom, schools are required to adopt copyright policies and notify staff and students about copyright laws.

Student Works

Works created by students are protected by copyright. Display or publication of student work without permission infringes on copyright. Some universities and private schools require that students relinquish the right to use the student's copyrighted works in institutional publications and promotional materials as a condition of admission to that school.

About the Author

A freelance writer since 1978 and attorney since 1981, Cindy Hill has won awards for articles on organic agriculture and wild foods, and has published widely in the areas of law, public policy, local foods and gardening. She holds a B.A. in political science from State University of New York and a Master of Environmental Law and a J.D. from Vermont Law School.