Instructional Videos Copyright Law

by Karyn Maier
Copyright laws restrict the use of videos, even when used for instructional purposes.

Copyright laws restrict the use of videos, even when used for instructional purposes.

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Copyright laws protect instructional videos, including documentaries, compilations and derivative works, from being used to generate a profit or to attribute credit for the creation of such materials to another party or entity. However, schools, libraries and educators and students may use these materials to instruct or promote literacy, but with certain limitations. Otherwise, the unauthorized use or distribution of videos may be subject to civil and criminal prosecution.

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Copyright Protection

Unites States Copyright Laws are governed by title 17 of the United States Code, which describes a creative work as intellectual property that is “fixed” in a permanent, tangible form of media under the authority of the person or persons who created it. This includes audiovisual works, such as instructional videos. Any work that is performed, transmitted or shown “publicly” as outlined by title 17, requires permission of the person or persons who own the copyright. Essentially, this means that the copyright holder is the only party with the legal right to copy, show or distribute the work.

Fair Use

The intent to use audiovisual materials for instructional purposes is subject to the rules of fair use. According to The Center for Social Media, in assessing what is considered fair use, lawyers and judges refer to the nature of the use, the nature of the work used, the extent of the use, and its economic effect on the copyright owner. This still leaves much room for interpretation, especially since the law is clear that these are not the only permissible considerations.

Extensions and Limitations

Fair use is also subject to the "rule of proportionality.” In other words, it is permissible for educators and students to use a portion of a work or even short works in their entirety, providing it is necessary for a legitimate purpose – in this scenario, to satisfy instructional or educational objectives. However, educators and students are held accountable for proper attribution of copyrighted material; there is an expectancy to take reasonable measures to protect the material from unauthorized access and duplication.


Instructional videos, just like feature movies made for the purpose of entertainment, can be licensed for public viewing. Certainly, purchasing the video grants this license. To illustrate, recall the “FBI Warning” that precedes every a video you buy or rent. What this cautionary statement is basically saying is that it’s fine to assemble family and friends to enjoy watching the film with you, but showing the movie to an auditorium full of people might constitute copyright infringement. However, schools, educators and individuals may purchase a public performance license to show audiovisual materials to groups of people in a public setting.