Starting Point

Any person reviewing a creative work for possible use should assume that the work is covered by copyright law. If the work does fall in a category protected by copyright law, the work belongs to the person who created it and you need permission to use it. Terms like “fair use” and “educational purposes” are often thrown around too liberally. The copyright rules and regulations were designed to protect the original creator and/or the copyright holder, and to prevent others from appropriating the protected material for their own use without permission and/or payment. Individuals presuppose that copyright law does not apply to them and they believe they don’t have to worry about that “legal stuff.” If you are using pictures from Google in a PowerPoint, copyright law applies. If you are using music for a presentation or project, copyright law applies. If you are showing a YouTube video, there are copyright rules you must consider. Copyright law is very broad and covers a great number of works and activities that people often overlook.

Outlined below are some of the general legal considerations of which you should be aware.

  1. All teachers qualify for the “educational use exception” and do not need to worry about copyright laws when teaching in the classroom.
  2. Even if I am breaking copyright laws it does not matter because everybody does it and few people get caught.
  3. If I tried to follow all the copyright laws I would not have anything to use for presentations or other activities in the classroom or work related projects.
  4. Even if I am breaking copyright law, the penalty will be a slap on the wrist because I am doing it on such a small scale.
  5. The only person I am hurting or putting at risk if I break copyright law is myself.
  1. Not everything a teacher does to further the education of students meets the educational use exception. In reality, copyright law does not give teachers as much protection as many think. There is not a specific number of copies that a teacher can make before breaking copyright law. There is no specific percentage cutoff and no other set standard that teachers can use as a formula before getting in trouble. There is a complex four part legal test to determine if the educational use exception applies, and it does not give teachers a good guideline to figure it out in advance. Because the test is complicated and the application is unclear, the quick and easy way to avoid legal trouble is to get permission from the owner to use the work.
  2. People are caught, arrested, and prosecuted for copyright law violations on a daily basis. As the world becomes more reliant on the Internet and digital files, people frequently copy and paste on their computer without thinking about any of the repercussions. Just because something is found on a mainstream Internet database does not mean you can use it without anybody else noticing. Because the internet has been around for over 20 years, the law has adapted accordingly. The mouse clicks and other actions you take on the Internet can, and often do, have legal consequences.
  3. Copyright law does cover a large body of work that is useful in the classroom and work environment. Since it usually is quick and easy to obtain permission to use a protected work, you should be able to use most of the resources you planned to use. Further, there actually are websites that have material available for public use. Once again, when in doubt, find out who is the copyright holder of the work and obtain permission by placing a telephone call or sending an email.
  4. Criminal charges for copyright violations may include a felony, misdemeanor, a large fine, and jail time. Even if a criminal conviction is simply a fine, there are other nonlegal consequences to consider. Non-legal consequences of having a conviction on your record include potential adverse action against your certificate of license to teach, difficulty obtaining employment, bad academic record, termination of your employment, and other ramifications from your school or employer.
  5. When you break copyright laws, you are placing your school/employer at risk. Just because you are the one physically making copies of protected material does not mean that you are the only one that could suffer legal consequences.

Quick facts to know:

If a work does not have a copyright symbol, the name of an author, or other official looking label, does that mean I can use it legally for my own purposes?

No. A work does not need to be labeled to be covered by copyright. People who create works (e.g., music, pictures, movies, clips, writings, etc.) automatically receive copyright protection even if they do not apply for it. Therefore, you must determine if the work you are trying to use is protected even if it may not appear to be at first glance. Unless you have permission from the copyright holder to use it, or meet a narrow exception, you legally are not allowed to use it.

If somebody writes in the title of a work “for fair use only” or “I do not claim the rights of this video,” does that make the use of the work legal?

No. Like the educational use exception, the fair use exception in copyright law is complex. Volumes have been written about what works qualify under the fair use doctrine, and it comes down to a case-by-case analysis and determination. Bold and blanket statements about how to meet the requirements are misleading and often incorrect. However, if you are certain the fair use doctrine applies, keep in mind that it does not give you unrestricted rights to use or to make copies.

YouTube Policy* – A teacher may show a YouTube video to students in class provided that it is strictly for educational purposes and the video on YouTube was posted by the original creator. Many times a third party adds language that a work is “for fair use only,” that the third party does not claim “legal rights” to the work, or even that the third party has obtained permission from the original creator to use the work. None of these third party statements make the work legally available for the teacher to use. Each subsequent user must derive an independent basis to use the work. It is against YouTube policy for a teacher (or anyone else) to make a copy of any YouTube video, although a teacher may post a link to a video on their website or other online database. It is against the law to show a DVD, or stream a movie/video to a class unless you have obtained written permission from the copyright holder or the movie specifically was made and intended to be shown for educational purposes. This rule applies even if the teacher owns the movie source or has rented it specifically to show in class.

As mentioned above, it is usually a quick and easy process to obtain written permission to use a protected work, especially from makers such as PBS or other organizations orientated toward the education field. One caveat to the “quick and easy” process is when you are dealing with a very distinct and protected brand such as the St. Louis Cardinals or Disney. These entities tend to be rather possessive about their protected works. Teachers cannot make copies of original materials that are intended for a student to use once and then to be discarded, such as workbooks, standardized tests, answer sheets, and similar materials. Teachers cannot make copies of textbook pages, workbooks, publishers’ reprints or periodicals as a substitute for purchasing the material from the publisher. It is okay to make a copy of a textbook page for temporary replacement for a student who forgot his book. A teacher cannot make class sets of textbook pages to avoid buying the textbook or other material a publisher produces. When teachers do make copies of permissible works, the charges for obtaining the copyrighted material cannot be passed on to the student.


The general mantra set out above will keep you out of trouble. There are interactive websites where you can obtain more detailed information about specific questions. One of your best resources on copyright issues is your school librarian, although she or he cannot give legal advice. If you still need information after consulting with the librarian, contact the MSTA Legal Services Department at 866.343.6186.

*YouTube has been used as an example of a particular company’s policies. Policies will vary by copyright holder, so make sure that you have authenticated who is the holder and that you have applied the appropriate rules.