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Learning Library Blog What every teacher should know about copyright law
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What every teacher should know about copyright law

By Jerry Fingal
October 11, 2019
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When it comes to plagiarism, teachers have no trouble identifying it and dealing with it. But copyright law is another story. It’s an area where teachers are a little less confident. But it is something they need to know, not only to stay on the right side of the law, but also to help students protect their own work, says Kerry Gallagher, assistant principal for teaching and learning at St. John’s Prep in Massachusetts.

“We think of plagiarism as it’s our ethical obligation to give credit for work done for ideas that have been put down in printed form,” Gallagher said. “We do this by adding a bibliography or a work cited to any product where we use those things. …

“When it comes to copyright though, the law part, this really has nothing to do with us as the user, it has to do with the rights of the creator. … It’s the legal right of the creator to determine how their original creative work will be used by others.”

Copyright holders have wide latitude in placing restrictions on the use of their work. They can decide that children can use their work but not adults. Or that copies can be made digitally but not on paper. Or vice-versa.

“You can decide whatever you want,” Gallagher said. “There are no government guidelines about what you decide here, as long as you share it really clearly.”

And it’s not just about the work itself. Anything that is inspired by a copyrighted work is subject to the law. Gallagher cites the case of “Joey,” the sitcom that was spun off from “Friends.” The producers of “Joey” had to get permission to make it from the creators of “Friends.”

However, there’s an exception to copyright law and it’s called fair use, which allows use of a protected work if certain conditions are met. There are four factors to consider:

1. Purpose and character of use.

“Are you using it to do something new, or are you using it because you want to get credit for that idea as a part of some other thing?” Gallagher says. “You don’t want to use it in a way that’s going to insinuate that you should get any kind of credit for that creation.

2. Amount and substantiality of the portion taken.

If you use a whole chapter of a book, that’s probably going to be copyright infringement and will not qualify as fair use.” Gallagher said. “If you use just a small quote or something, then that’s OK. That’s going to be fair use.”

3. Nature of the work.

This just establishes what the creation actually is – fiction or nonfiction and whether it has been published.

4. Effect on the potential market.

Has the person retained their rights to profit from their original creation if they want those rights? That’s really important.”

Gallagher says these “are not boxes that you check, this is a balancing test. If you hit two factors really hard, then you’re probably going to get fair use.”

And just to be clear, Gallagher says, “there is no factor that mentions that if you’re an educator, it’s automatically fair use. Educators aren’t even mentioned in the factors. It’s really, really important for us to share that with our colleagues.”

Learn more about how to apply copyright law in the classroom by watching Kerry Gallagher's ISTE19 presentation below: 


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Jerry Fingal is a freelance writer and editor who covers education, finance and business.