Copyright Laws for Textbooks

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U.S. copyright law gives an author the exclusive right to duplicate and distribute her original work for a certain number of years. These exclusive rights are limited by the public interest in ensuring materials can be freely reproduced in an educational context. During debate about revisions to the copyright law, a House of Representatives ad hoc committee reached an agreement with the Authors League of America and the Association of American Publishers regarding the use of copyrighted works in nonprofit educational institutions. Portions of this agreement were later codified in the 1976 Copyright Act.

Single Copies for Educational Use

Teachers are permitted to make a single copy of an excerpt of copyrighted print material for use in researching or otherwise preparing to teach a class. This generally includes, for example, a chapter from a book or a single article from a newspaper or magazine. An excerpt from a work cannot be more than 1,000 words or 10 percent of the work, whichever is less. Students may copy portions of books under the fair use copyright exemption, provided copying is not being used as a substitute for buying a textbook.

Classroom Use

A teacher may make one copy per student of copyrighted print material for classroom discussion and use, provided each copy includes a copyright notice and meets statutory tests for brevity, spontaneity and cumulative effect. To pass the brevity test, the portion copied should be an excerpt of the whole. For example, a story or essay copied should be less than 2,500 words. If the teacher made the decision to copy the material from an instant inspiration such that requesting permission would be unreasonable, the copying satisfies the spontaneity requirement. Finally, the cumulative effect requirement dictates the copying can be only for one class, in one class term, with no more than nine instances of multiple copying in one class term.

Read More: Examples of Fair Use Copyright Laws in the Classroom


Teachers may not make copies of workbooks, tests, or other material intended to be consumable during the course of study. Copying must come from the individual teacher’s inspiration, and cannot be directed by a supervisor. Teachers should not use copying to take the place of purchasing needed materials. Finally, students making copies for educational purposes cannot be charged by non-profit schools more than the actual cost of photocopying. (See References 1 and 4)

Fair Use

Copying that does not fall within the confines of the agreement may still qualify as fair use. Fair use is an exception to the exclusive rights of copyright holders. Fair use is a defense that a teacher could raise if sued for copyright infringement. Courts look at the purpose of the use, the nature of the work copied, the amount of the copyrighted work that was copied, and the effect of that copying on the market for the copyrighted work. Although many instances of using copyrighted material in a noncommercial, nonprofit educational context are considered fair use, there is never any guarantee of this, because the balancing of the factors depends on the analysis of the judge in an infringement case.

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