Teacher Development

Teachers Should Know Copyright from Wrong

Know what you can -- and can't -- download for the classroom.
March 20, 2008
Credit: Getty Images

As tech-savvy teachersintegrate moremultimedia work intotheir classroom, theyalso face a thorny question: Whoowns the visual, audio, andmoving images they downloadand pop into their presentations?Get that answer wrong, and youmay get dinged with a hefty fine.

"I don't think most teacherswillingly ignore copyrightissues," says David Ensign, aprofessor of law at the Universityof Louisville, in Louisville,Kentucky. "But I do think manyhave the impression that anyuse of material in education isfair use."

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Fair use is a component ofU.S. copyright law that allowslimited use of copyrighted materialwithout obtaining writtenpermission, purchasing thework, or paying the creator aroyalty. Typically, fair use providesfor the legal, nonlicensedcitation or incorporation ofcopyrighted material in anotherauthor's work, and applies whenthey are used for such applicationsas scholarship or review.

It's a concept with increasingimportance in the modernclassroom. Students weaned ontech are demanding more interms of riveting class material.Consequently, teachersare scouring online sourceslooking for video, audio, snips,clips, and Web sites they canadd to their presentation -- anything to capture and holdtheir students' attention.

Seems simple, but there'sa catch. "Fair use in the educationalsetting is defined morebroadly but does not encompassall uses," warns Ensign.

Fair use in the classroom isoften dependent on the subjectmatter of the content. Ensign saysa teacher may not be allowed toshow the film The Lion King tothe class simply because it wasraining and the kids were squirrelly.It could be shown only ifthe class were doing a study ofDisney films or were engaged inthe study of a related subject.

Ensign recommends that everyschool and school district createand enforce a copyright usagepolicy that is very clear aboutwhat is allowable for classroomuse. One easy out: linking. Ensignsays he doesn't paste copyrightedmaterial into his lessonsand course plans -- he links to it.Commenting on a quoted passageis also fair use, as blogs do.

Yet another approach is providedby Smart Technologies, acompany that has teamed upwith centuries-old publisherCambridge University Press tooffer the Global Grid for Learning,consisting of more thana million pieces of copyright-cleareddigital information.These include copyright-clearedimages, video clips, audio files,text documents, and learningobjects ready for teachers to incorporateinto their lessons.

Before dismissing these options,educators should realizethat failure to honor copyrightscan cost them personally."Teachers and librarians don'trealize that although they'reacting on behalf of the schooland are not benefiting personally,"Ensign warns, "it doesn'tmean they're not personallyliable."