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Copyright and Fair Use for Students and Educators

About what constitutes fair, educational use of copyrighted materials for students doing research and other course work

Limits on Fair Use

The Copyright Office has laid out a few guidelines that sort of set the minimums and maximums of what counts for educational fair use, if you are on the educator side of the bracket. You can read them all in the recommended (and not, relatively speaking, overly long): Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians (pdf). Down in the section titled "Agreement on Guidelines for Classroom Copying in Not-For-Profit Educational Institutions with respect to books and periodicals" (page 6 of the document), you will see some specific amounts set forth for teachers making copies for class (or for those making copies on behalf of a teacher's lessons):

  • Only as many copies as there are students in the class.
  • Copyright notice must be given for copies made.
  • Poetry may be copied up to 250 lines.
  • Prose may be copied up to (a) 2500 words if that is the entire piece, (b) 1000 words of a longer piece, or (c) 10%. A minimum of 500 words may be copied.
  • These copies can not be made to avoid paying a fee for a workbook or anthology.

If you notice, this still fails to go into details about what a student can use. The answer? At least the best answer you are going to get? Look to the four watch words above. Are you quoting/referencing short, necessary bits in a paper that will only be seen, at most, by your professor and classmates? Then generally speaking, fair use will cover the majority of what you do.

When in doubt, see: Checking the Copyright Status of a Work (pdf), and keep the use the material in question down to what fulfills and enhances the assignment. Do not quote a page when a couple of lines will suffice.

Note: attribution is not enough to waive aside copyright infringement. That's more or less a direct quote from the same "Fair Use" document linked to above: "Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission." If you are going behind a short quote/paraphrase, go ahead and try to get permission.

Best Practices

Here are 8 tips that will help you with fair use in the classroom.

  1. Make use of the library's reserve desk. Students can borrow the book or article to read for a short (usually 1-2 hour) time, so that copies do not have to be made by you (the students can make their own copies).
  2. Encourage students to bring in articles suited to the lesson. This gives them practice with searching and researching and guarantees that the article use is more spontaneous.
  3. Use snippets in class. If students are interested in reading more, help them to find the full source.
  4. Find and use new materials each term. Keeps the class up-to-date, and also fulfills the "one term" quality for fair use in the classroom.
  5. Give students finding tools, but let them search out the materials themselves. Rather than link to the article directly, use tools like DOI, Accession Numbers, title searches, and keywords to lead students to the articles [as well as related articles].
  6. Use raw data. Not always the easiest thing to obtain, but raw data is not copyrightable and often has many patterns and structures not touched upon by articles that, due to necessity, have to focus on certain trends.
  7. Use Public Domain works, including government documents, or Creative Commons or other alternative licensing structures. Public Domain is especially useful for those teaching older works of literature, but there are many works more recently written that are released Open Access, under more lenient licenses, and with blanket permissions built in.
  8. Learn the basics of getting permission for when the above does not get you where you need to be. The Copyright Clearance Center is a place to start.