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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teachers Should Know Copyright from Wrong

Know what you can -- and can't -- download for the classroom.
By Star Lawrence
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Credit: Getty Images

As tech-savvy teachers integrate more multimedia work into their classroom, they also face a thorny question: Who owns the visual, audio, and moving images they download and pop into their presentations? Get that answer wrong, and you may get dinged with a hefty fine.

"I don't think most teachers willingly ignore copyright issues," says David Ensign, a professor of law at the University of Louisville, in Louisville, Kentucky. "But I do think many have the impression that any use of material in education is fair use."

Fair use is a component of U.S. copyright law that allows limited use of copyrighted material without obtaining written permission, purchasing the work, or paying the creator a royalty. Typically, fair use provides for the legal, nonlicensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author's work, and applies when they are used for such applications as scholarship or review.

It's a concept with increasing importance in the modern classroom. Students weaned on tech are demanding more in terms of riveting class material. Consequently, teachers are scouring online sources looking for video, audio, snips, clips, and Web sites they can add to their presentation -- anything to capture and hold their students' attention.

Seems simple, but there's a catch. "Fair use in the educational setting is defined more broadly but does not encompass all uses," warns Ensign.

Fair use in the classroom is often dependent on the subject matter of the content. Ensign says a teacher may not be allowed to show the film The Lion King to the class simply because it was raining and the kids were squirrelly. It could be shown only if the class were doing a study of Disney films or were engaged in the study of a related subject.

Ensign recommends that every school and school district create and enforce a copyright usage policy that is very clear about what is allowable for classroom use. One easy out: linking. Ensign says he doesn't paste copyrighted material into his lessons and course plans -- he links to it. Commenting on a quoted passage is also fair use, as blogs do.

Yet another approach is provided by Smart Technologies, a company that has teamed up with centuries-old publisher Cambridge University Press to offer the Global Grid for Learning, consisting of more than a million pieces of copyright-cleared digital information. These include copyright-cleared images, video clips, audio files, text documents, and learning objects ready for teachers to incorporate into their lessons.

Before dismissing these options, educators should realize that failure to honor copyrights can cost them personally. "Teachers and librarians don't realize that although they're acting on behalf of the school and are not benefiting personally," Ensign warns, "it doesn't mean they're not personally liable."

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ann, Topeka's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Education Week had an interesting article on the cost of copyright. It has some very surprising information. Published in Print: March 12, 2008

Scott Ford's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Keep an eye out for Creative Common licencing. This will give you more leaway for donwloading and using materials.
I personaly have a great deal of content, both powerpoints and podcast that are avaible online. On my site I make it clear that insturctors can use any matierlas I have online, but can not modify them.
I think there are more and more of us out there.
iTunes search word: Scott Ford

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Article too vague to be of use. Be more specific. Give examples. As is, no real help.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article spotlights an issue that very frequently occurs in the classroom.

Michael Maxson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yeah, Global Grid for Learning gives teachers copyright free material for $239.00 per year!!!

I'm so tired of the big Media companies who have huge amounts of money from advertising and journalist who also with all kinds of money from these ads during shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars being able to use copyrighted material at their discretion while us poor teachers are getting beat over the head with fees and lectures about NOT using things because they're "copyrighted".

Fair Use means "Fair Use"

Olga LaPlante's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although this is a good topic, the article is totally useless - other than reference to a real person and a company it has no data. Do not reference or "link" to this one! In fact, copyright in the classroom is of much broader use, other than entertainment - which is obviously not educational and this infringes copyright.

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