Copyright and Fair Use for Teachers

I’m often confronted with, as many other teachers are as well, students that want to download a picture of their favorite wrestler for a class project. More often I will find a fifth grader that wants to use an image of Eminem or another music icon for a web project, and I must reluctantly inform them that using such images on their own web page is both unethical and illegal. Because of these situations, I have begun to include short lessons about copyright and fair use in my teaching. I give them a chance to talk about what they consider to be stealing, borrowing, and “editing” and how those concepts apply to resources found on the Internet as well as in print media. It takes several small discussion for them to begin to understand that somebody else actually owns the images on line, despite the fact that you can often just right click and save an image to your own computer.

However, the bigger challenge is being able to answer their questions that I have not prepared for (not that we can prepare for every question as educators) about copyright laws and what exactly is fair to use in education. Some of the questions that caught me off guard were about music on line; specifically downloading it, burning it, and sharing it with friends. Many schools allow students access to video camcorders to make their own movies, and using music ethically and legally is very touchy in the classroom, especially when a movie might be shown in what might be considered a “public space.” I was not prepared to answer such a question, and I found it even more daunting to tell students that their relatives and friends that burned CDs in order to pass out copies of their favorite album or songs were possibly committing a rather illegal act according to copyright law. That’s when I got searching on the web and found this great resource – Fair Use and Copyright for Teachers. Not only did it clarify what the term “Fair Use” means, it also spells out exactly how to use copyrighted music, video, and images for educational projects. For instance, I was surprised to discover that you can use music and clips from movies can be used in classroom multi-media projects, and in some cases, these materials can even be reposted on your own website, given certain safeguard are in place ensuring that only students have access to the material and that it is removed from the web once the particular project is over.

If you have other sources for teachers dealing with copyright issues in an ethical and safe manner, please feel free to share here or in the forum, as I’m eager to know how others deal with this touchy subject.


  1. As someone who is just graduating from a Master of Libary Science program where several classes emphasized fair use I found this post very interesting. The laws and rules and guidelines are very confusing and some people don’t even bother. To hear a teacher not only trying to follow the rules but also to talk about them with students is great. Another source that I always go to is the UT system library site (it was listed in the references for the site you mentioned).

    Also, while reading this, I wondered if it would be appropriate to introduce them to things that were totally free to use under a creative commons license.

  2. I would love to introduce them to the concept of Creative Commons and content created for the explicit purpose of having it be “re-mixed”, reworked, or otherwise used in a way to create something else. I’ve recently accepted a new teaching position that will have me in a classroom with wireless laptops so I’ll have lots of opportunity to discuss Fair Use on a more frequent, and pertinent, basis.

  3. We fight a constant battle about not using copyrighted material without permission. And mostly, the teachers are the ones who want to break the law. When I hear the statement, “But the students REALLY want to use their favorite music on the video yearbook” I ask them if we’re here to teach students that they can break a law if they don’t like it.

  4. I think the big problem is when teachers and students get too accustomed to using images, videos, and music under the Fair Use policy in their reports and school projects that aren’t for public display. Since they’re so used to near “open access” they can’t make the distinction between public viewing and educational purposes. At least that’s just my two cents.

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