Copyright laws protect creative works such as photographs, paintings, poems, books and essays. The copyright gives the owner the exclusive right to make and distribute copies, sell and perform works based on the protected work. However, there are some exceptions that allow others to use the copyrighted work without violating copyright laws, including an exception for fair use in classrooms.
Fair Use Guidelines
Fair use is an exception that allows parts of a copyrighted work to be used without the owner's permission. Teachers and others must balance fair use principles to determine whether their proposed use will qualify for a fair use exception. These factors are the purpose and character of the use, nature of the copyrighted work, amount used and effect of the use on the market for the copyrighted work. For example, a teacher's use of one line from a poem to inspire students to create their own poems is likely to be considered fair use while duplicating copyrighted poems for sale in a school fundraiser is likely not fair use.
Fair Use Balancing
Though fair use can be difficult to determine, general guidelines can help teachers use copyrighted works without violating copyright laws. Generally, the more of a protected work a teacher copies, the less likely the use is to be considered fair. If a teacher puts copies online rather than only on paper, the use is unlikely to be considered fair since others have access to the copyrighted work. Generally, small sections of a copyrighted work that are used when the teacher does not have enough time to seek permission are considered fair use. This is especially true if the distribution of the work is limited, such as giving only one copy per student, and use of copyrighted work is infrequent, such as only a few times per term.
Copies cannot be used as a substitute for purchasing a copyrighted work and there are instances in which copying clearly does not qualify as fair use. For example, if a teacher copies an entire text because her budget does not allow her to purchase textbooks for each child, she has likely violated copyright law. Teachers also cannot reproduce videos for classroom use, though they may be able to use videos in the classroom and can make copies for archival purposes if replacements are unavailable or available only in obsolete formats.
Some works are considered public domain and, as such, are not copyrighted. These works can be used freely by teachers without concern that they are violating copyright laws, and teachers do not have to worry about fair use when using works in the public domain. These works include items created by federal government employees as part of their jobs, such as manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project or other written or photographic material produced by persons working for federal agencies. Teachers can copy these works for classroom projects or other classroom use without first obtaining permission.