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Copyright & Fair Use for Instructors

Copyright law in the United States allows the creator of any work in a fixed medium to control how that work is used. Copyright law also allows works to be used in certain ways without getting the permission of the creator. Educational and scholarly uses are some of these protected uses, but there are some limits. Some uses are clearly permitted, while others require careful analysis—often by a lawyer. What you can do with someone else's work depends on many factors and your own attitude toward risk.

Low Risk Use

The least risky way to use someone else's materials in your teaching is to limit its use to the physical classroom. Displaying or performing the work in the context of a physical classroom is an exempted use that does not require permission. When copies are distributed to the class or are posted online, the safest route is to get permission from the copyright holder or use materials that are in the public domain or have been posted with specific permissions that allow your type of use (such as works with a Creative Commons license).

The Library is also a good source for materials that have made available specifically for teaching and scholarship. The online resources at the Library are vast, so before scanning books or articles on your own, check to see if these are already available through the Library.

Moderate to High Risk Use

If you are not able to get permission, and the material is not available through public domain or open access, you can apply a fair use analysis to see if your use would be allowed under the “fair use” doctrine within the Copyright law. Only a judge can specifically determine if a use is fair, but by doing a good-faith analysis of your use, you can determine the likelihood that a copyright holder will complain about your use, and the likelihood that the complaint would be upheld in court.

A fair use analysis requires looking at four related factors: the purpose of the use, the nature of the work, the amount of the work used, and the effect of the use on the work’s creator. Each use is different and there are no hard and fast rules about what is and is not fair (the idea that there is a specific percentage that can be used is a myth). In a nutshell, the use should ideally not replace the purchase of the original work, should only use as much as is necessary to meet the educational goals, and should in some way transform the work so that it is not being used for its original purpose.

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Last Updated: Apr. 03, 2012