Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Using Copyrighted Material in School

There are a multitude of copyrighted works out there that can help teachers and students in the classroom, but it doesn't make sense for most teachers and students to buy licenses for works that might just demonstrate an idea or back up an assertion on a term paper. Using copyrighted material in school can be a tricky.

Thankfully, the fair use doctrine contained in the Copyright Act can give teachers and students a break when it comes to the educational use of works protected by copyright. Teachers and students can use or reproduce portions of a copyrighted work for free under certain circumstances if the work is used as part of a student's education.

On the other hand, student, teachers, and educational institutions must pay for works when their use goes beyond what is considered fair. Thus, it is important for institutions to educate their students and faculty about what constitutes fair use and when compensation to copyright holders is required.

Fair Use

Copyright protects works from unauthorized copying, performance or display. This protection provides an incentive for creators to continue to produce works since they know that they will have the sole rights to use or market their work.

In certain situations, however, the Copyright Act recognizes that it is in the public's best interest to allow for the use of a work without compensation to the copyright holder. Quoting a small passage from a novel in the middle of a book report constitutes one such fair use, for example.

There is no exhaustive list of fair uses, and whether or not a use is fair depends on the circumstances surrounding the use. There are four factors that courts will consider when determining whether a use is fair:

  1. The purpose and character of the use: was the use commercial or noncommercial?
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work: was the work creative or factual?
  3. The amount of the portion used in relation to the entire work: was a substantial part of the work used, or just a small part?
  4. The effect of the use on the work's potential market: did the use effect demand for the copyrighted work?


Fair Use in Education

Examining those four factors, students and teachers can get a sense of when it is permissible to use works under copyright in their education.

  • Character of the use: As long as the teacher or student uses the work solely for education, this factor weighs in favor of a finding of fair use.
  • Nature of the work: Use of a factual work in research is likely to be found fair, but even limited use of a creative work can be fair if all of the other factors are met.
  • The amount used: If students and teachers only use a small portion, they should be alright. If entire works or substantial amounts are copied, then the use is on shakier ground.
  • The effect on the market: If the students and teachers truly need a full version of the work and are only copying to avoid buying a license, then the use probably isn't fair.

Different Types of Media

Students and teachers learn by using a wide variety of media: books, internet articles, videos, sheet music -- you name it.

Different types of media may have different rules associated with them. For video in particular, a committee established a set of guidelines to help educators and students determine when, why and how they could make copies of broadcasts for the purposes of education.

If educators deviate from these guidelines, their use may still be fair, but it's a good idea to stick to the guidelines just to be safe.

Educators and Students: Need Legal Advice?

While the fair use doctrine generally isn't an excuse to get out of paying for copyrighted works, it is a useful concept that allows students and teachers to take advantage of the vast wealth of knowledge in the world without having to shell out for every minor use of a copyrighted work. If you have specific questions about fair use, contact an experienced business and commercial law attorney today to avoid costly mistakes in the future.

Was this helpful?

Response sent, thank you

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified business attorney to help you identify how to best protect your business' intellectual property.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Meet FindLaw's trusted provider of business formation solutions:

'You want to get it right. ZenBusiness can help.' Mark Cuban, Spokesperson

Let's start your free LLC!

Get worry-free services and support to launch your business starting at $0 plus state fees

Start My LLC

The #1 rated service by trusted experts

  • Forbes
  • Market Watch
  • Marc Cuban
  • Nerdwallet
  • Investopedia
Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options