Educational Technology and Copyright Law

In the educational technology world, the matter of copyright and “fair use” pops up with almost every project. Can you, as a teacher use images from the Internet? Can students search for images and use them in their projects? In most cases, the answer is…probably.

NOTE: It’s important to know that copyright laws are on the books to encourage the creation of content, not restrict its access.

First, what exactly is copyright? Copyright is a United States federal law that protects original “works of authorship” which include literary, written, dramatic, artistic, musical and certain other types of works.

All content is copyrighted immediately and does not require filing paperwork. When you, a student or anyone for that matter, draws a picture, writes a story, snaps a picture, scribbles on a notepad or hums a new tune, etc., the work is copyrighted. You don’t have to complete any paperwork…your work is copyrighted immediately. And, you can even use the © if you want.

Let’s say you are in a faculty meeting and you are writing notes and doodling. Later you realize your doodling is amazing. Maybe you want to make t-shirts and coffee mugs with your doodle. Now you are panicking worried someone will steal your idea. Relax! The instant you created the doodle, it is copyrighted. You now have four exclusive rights:

  1. Reproduce the copyrighted work;
  2. Display the copyrighted work publicly;
  3. Prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work; and
  4. Distribute copies of the copyrighted work to the public by sale, rental or lending, and/or to display the image.
Image by Timothy Vollmer

Fair Use

Now let’s look at fair use and how you or your students can use copyrighted works for school projects.

Back to your amazing doodle. Let’s say you snap a picture of your artwork and post it on Pinterest. By the way, the picture is now copyrighted as well. Anyway, a teacher at another school discovers your artwork while perusing Pinterest and thinks it would be perfect in a classroom digital project. Can they use it without your permission?

Here is what copyright law states:

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Source: Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use

So, can your doodle be used in someone else’s classroom project? In this case, yes. The image is used for the purpose of teaching. And, the first fair use factor is met; the character of the use is for nonprofit educational purposes.

Licensed Images

Okay, so you are excited to see the broad fair use allowed for education. Does that mean every image is fair game? No!

Many images are licensed. For example, images on iStockPhoto or Flickr Creative Commons are licensed and are not subject to fair use. For example, if you use an image from Flickr Creative Commons the license may say you can use the photo but must give credit to the photographer (which you should do anyway). For commercial sites such as iStockPhoto, you buy a license to use a photo.

Remember your doodle? You did not license the use of your doodle (because you are going to start your own t-shirt company…you don’t want other people to have rights to your artwork) and you did not license the photo of the doodle. So, your photo is not licensed and falls under fair use.

Can You Use an Image?

In classroom projects, it is fine to search for images on the Internet. This is a great opportunity to teach media literacy with your students.

First, try to determine if the image is licensed (not copyrighted…remember, almost everything is copyrighted). If it is licensed, such as a Creative Commons license, either use the image in accordance to the license or do not use is at all.

If the image is not licensed, or your best guess is it is not licensed, use it according to the fair use regulations. Make sure to give credit to the creator if possible and have students keep a bibliography or their sources.

The bottom line is, if you find a great picture on the Internet, chances are extremely good you can use it for educational purposes.

What are your thoughts? Please post a comment below. Thanks for reading the educational technology blog Teach Amazing!