Fair Use Copyright Laws for Education

Written by timothy sexton
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Teachers routinely use copyrighted materials inside the classroom for purely instructional use. Examples include everything from making copies from pages of books to showing movies to having students create music "mash-ups" in computer technology classes. The laws surrounding violation of copyright fall under the exemptions commonly known as fair use for education. Few teachers are aware of when they are or are not violating copyright, leading to a number of problems.


Fair use is strictly outlined in American laws regarding copyrighted material. Allowances are made for what would otherwise by a violation of copyright laws if the material is made for a multitude of purposes related to education--including teaching, research, criticism, commentary, news reporting and scholarship. Under this educational usage exemption fall four strict standards that must be followed.


The educational use must have a clearly defined purpose. Fair use for education allows the copying of parts of a copyrighted work as long as there is a very specific educational purpose at work and the copies are used only temporarily. A very important element is that the teacher himself must want to use the copyrighted work because the school does not have access to it; if the teacher is forced to make copies because the district or principal does not want to buy the books, fair use is violated.

Nature of the Work

The nature of the work that is being copied also is an important element of the fair use for education exemption. Non-fiction tends to be more acceptable for fair use than fiction. If the work is a commercial publication that is explicitly intended for use in education, fair use copying is generally discouraged. Music and video is also considered less applicable to fair use exemption than printed works.


The proportion of the copied material relative to the overall essence of the work is integral to the process of determining fair use. It is acceptable to copy entire paragraphs from a book and selected passages from a shorter work, but copying an entire work or an entire chapter probably won't be exempted. A thumbnail of an image is usually acceptable, but using an entire image is very problematic. Many teachers show movies in the classroom. In almost all cases where the video is not specifically from the school's library collection, they are violating the fair use exemption.


One of the most important elements related to the fair use exemption involves the basis of the effect on marketability. If the copying of the material can be proven to have had a negative impact on the potential sales of the copyrighted works, fair use is absolutely terminated.

No-Worry Copying

Fair use of copyrighted materials for education extends certain rights to published and copyrighted works that are not extended otherwise. Because few teachers fully understand these laws and because schools districts rarely give adequate explanations or training to teachers, the best recourse for many is simply to use works that are not problematic. No-worry copying includes works for which the teacher or district has received express written permission for usage, and works in the public domain.

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