As an educator I am constantly sifting through authentic material to use in class. But how do I know if I can legally use it without risking being sued by the copyright owner?  Do I risk losing my home, car and my firstborn if I copy a few articles and show a film in class?

Copyrighted material is material written by an expert on a given topic. This is of course of much value when it comes to teaching as we want for students to be learning from the experts. Courses should aspire to use as much copyrighted material as possible however it is important to use it within the boundaries of the law.

In order to use it effectively, it ought to be an enrichment, an addition to what the curriculum already offers. Without permission, teachers cannot reproduce copyrighted material in works of their own.  I had a college professor who would require us to purchase a textbook he put together with excerpts from multiple sources. He needed permission from many of those authors and publishers to publish those materials together because they made up the curriculum and we were required to spend our hard-earned money on them.  The readings were from many various authors, differing points of view and examples,  and they came together to form an outstanding course.  So although gaining permission to use all of the different sources can prove to be time consuming, it can be well worth it when it comes to the educational gains it delivers.

Copyrighted material can be quality, authentic material and thus often prove to be the best type of resources to use for teaching and learning.  Today, thanks to the Fair use and TEACH acts, teachers rarely need to jump through all of the hoops when it comes to seeking permission for the various materials we long to use.  There are some important guidelines to keep in mind with these exceptions so it is important to familiarize yourself with them before jumping in.  (I have compiled some fantastic resources to help guide you at the end of this writing!)

So even though we may feel uncertain, authentic, copyrighted resources should in no way be avoided while showing a preference for textbooks only.  However, educators need to be careful that they are following the fair use guidelines. According to Education World, the fair use doctrine was created to “allow the use of copyrighted works for criticism and commentary, parody, news reporting, research and scholarship, and classroom instruction.” (Starr, 2010). This is good news for teachers whose only intent is to share the resources with their students.  As long as it is not diverting or infringing on the original creators income potential, there is no problem. It must be non profit, and the educator cannot be receiving financial gain from the fair use material.

There are four guiding principles when trying to figure out if we can claim “Fair use” if we run into issues.  They are:

  • What is the nature of the use?
  • What type of work is being used?
  • How much – what is the amount being used?
  • Is the use of this work having a commercial impact on the original creator?

Fair use is a fantastic provision for teachers, and we ought to take advantage of it and enrich our students lives with expert, authentic materials.  TEACH is simply an extension of the Fair Use act as we begin to share more and more resources online, in cyber, hybrid and online classes.  For whatever type of class you are using the material, I find a good rule of thumb is: when in doubt, ask for permission and use attribution for everything.  This also provides a good example for our students as we guide them through the copyright and fair use laws that they can use as they create and present and learn.   You can also ask yourself:  if I had created this, how would I want it used?  Put yourself in their shoes.  Respect the creator.  And ALWAYS give credit when it is not your original work!

Check out the resources below for more explanations on why we needn’t fear the Copyright laws, but how we can use them to enrich our classrooms and teach good digital citizenship to our students.

Royce Kimmons created a fantastic 7 minute video explaining the basics of copyright law for teachers… Great place to start!

I also found Royce Kimmons’ site on Copyright to be very informative and easy to understand – unlike copyright law.

Next, check out this five part series by Linda Starr on all things copyright.

Watch Stan Muller’s crash course on Intellectual Property here!

The University of Rhode Island goes over videos and how to use them in class without risking copyright infringement.  The site also provides helpful examples.

Finally, you will feel like a Copyright expert after viewing Katie Morrow’s webinar on the topic.


Starr, L. (2010). Is Fair Use a License to Steal? Retrieved March 16, 2018, from