Copyright Laws for Students

by Lisa Magloff
Students can sometimes use copyrighted work without the owner's permission.

Students can sometimes use copyrighted work without the owner's permission.

Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images

A copyright protects the creator of a work, such as a writers, artists or musicians, from having their work reprinted or reused without their permission. However, there are some important exceptions in copyright law that allow portions of a copyrighted work to be used without the copyright owner's permission. Some of these exceptions allow the use of copyrighted work for academic purposes, like research or teaching. It is important for students to understand these exceptions, as violating a copyright can result in an expensive legal battle.


Ideas and facts cannot be copyright protected. This means that students can use any facts they find in another article or book in their own work. For example, if a story in the New York Times reports on teen pregnancy, the wording used in the article is protected by copyright. However, any facts reported in the article, like the rate of teen pregnancy, can be used as a source in a student report. Similarly, the results of scientific research and theories cannot be copyrighted, although the exact wording of the theory or research report can be copyrighted. This allows students to reuse data and information in their own work.

Fair Use

Fair use is an important exception to the copyright law for students. The Fair Use Doctrine in copyright law allows people to use parts of a copyrighted work without permission if it is considered “fair use”. Examples of fair use include quoting another author's work in a paper; using an excerpt from a movie in an academic presentation or reprinting a map in a school report. There is no hard and fast rule for what constitutes fair use. In a dispute, courts examine a variety of factors, such as how much of the work was used and whether the copyright owner lost money by the use, to determine if use of a copyrighted work is fair use or not.


Parody and spoofs are often used in student journalism, school productions and advertisement of on-campus events. The United States Supreme Court ruled in the 1994 case of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., that parodies and spoofs of copyrighted material can qualify as fair use. In order for this to happen, the parody must be obvious and there must be a substantial change to the original work. In addition, a parody is not treated as fair use if the public will buy the parody instead of the original.


In most cases, using a recording of a performance or a display of a work in a classroom setting qualifies as fair use. Copyright law allows instructors and students to use copyrighted material in the course of face-to-face teaching and classroom presentations by students. The copyrighted material must be used in a nonprofit education institution and must have been copied lawfully. For example, using a pirated DVD of a movie in a classroom presentation is a violation of copyright law but using a DVD that was purchased in a store is not. In addition, the work must be used in the course of teaching, and admission cannot be charged. For example, if the student union shows a movie as an entertainment and charges admission, this may violate copyright law.


Students must keep in mind that copyright is not the same as plagiarism. The doctrine of fair use allows a students to use someone else's data or ideas in their own work. However, if the student does not state where the data or idea came from or implies the idea or data was his own work, he may have committed plagiarism. Plagiarism in a school paper or project is not a criminal or civil offence, but it may violate your school's code of ethics and can lead to a failing grade or even expulsion.