Copyright in the Digital Classroom: Fair Use

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by Óðinn at the English language Wikipedia
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If you’re like me, you think that anything that a teacher needs for his/her classroom should be free.   I mean, we make next to nothing, yet we’re usually stuck with buying supplies, subscriptions, etc.  Unfortunately (or not), other people have to make money, and a lot of what we need in our classrooms is not free.  As teachers, though, we’ve been given a little leeway in our endeavors to utilize available resources that might not be free.  This leeway is referred to as “fair use”, and I’ll be honest:  the guidelines surrounding fair use are often about as clear as mud.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to clear a few things up for you and point you towards some other resources that are also helpful.

Fair use is a concept that was formalized in 1976 in order to provide exceptions to the copyright laws in a few specific situations.  These situations include news reporting, parody, research, and education.  My focus for this post will be the guidelines for education.  I’ve heard many teachers claim “fair use” to use anything copyrighted as long as they’re using it in their classrooms.  This is a misconception, and potentially, a costly one.  The biggies of fair use in education are that it only applies to face-to-face instruction (not online), material must be used pretty immediately after it is gathered, and it can only be used once…not saved to be used again semester after semester, or year after year.

In addition to the guidelines above, Dan Sparlin with NCDPI published a Fair Use Test on NCWISE Owl.  According to this test, usage is classified as fair use if:

  • the purpose of the use was non-commercial or the purpose of the use was to alter or enhance the original piece of work,
  • the type of work used was out of print or a work of non-fiction,
  • only small portions of a work are used (unless the small portion is one that contains the “essence” of the work),
  • or if using the piece of work will have no affect of the owner to control the sale or distribution of the work.

So, as a teacher, how do you keep yourself safe from those hefty fines that could come your way if you infringe on copyright?  The number one way to ask permission.  In our ever-increasingly connected world, it is super easy to contact authors and publishers to get permission.  This endeavor could also lead to creating some great relationships for the classroom…think Skype and Google Hangouts!  I would also advise any teachers who use websites as information hubs in your classroom to password protect them.  Only giving access to students and parents will help protect you as well.  The best advice I’ve received about copyright is to always ask myself, “Are you saving money?”  If the answer to this question is “yes”, even fair use may not give you the right to use something.  Stay tuned for more posts about copyright in the digital classroom!

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