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Copyright in the Classroom

Classroom Exemption

U.S. Copyright Law grants some specific exceptions to the rights of copyright holders to promote educational activities. These exceptions are broadest in the traditional, nonprofit, face-to-face, in-person classroom (Section 110(2)). In this setting, instructors (including guest lecturers) and students are allowed to perform and/or display copyrighted works, even in their entirety, without obtaining permission or even conducting a fair use analysis. Common scenarios include:

  • Students may act out a play, even a recent play that remains protected by copyright.

  • An instructor may display or present images, diagrams, sheet music, etc. for the class.

  • An instructor may play an entire recording of a piece of music or film, as long as it comes from a legally obtained copy.

This broad Classroom Exemption does not apply in online settings such as distance education courses, which must rely on different provisions like fair use and those put in place by TEACH Act. You cannot rely on this exception to distribute copies of copyrighted works to your students, whether in class or through Canvas.

The TEACH Act & Fair Use

Instructors who are teaching a distance course or placing copyright materials on a course website must rely on two other important areas of copyright law to determine whether or not it is necessary to obtain permission from the copyright holder. Remember, the TEACH Act is explicitly defined and lacks most of the flexibility offered by fair use. In many cases, you will need to rely on both exceptions--or even entirely on fair use--to meet your educational goals.

  • The TEACH ActSection 110(2) of U.S. Copyright Law was signed into law in 2002 specifically to address emerging modes of distance education. While not as flexible as the exception for face-to-face classroom settings, the TEACH Act does support distance educators by allowing transmission of "reasonable and limited portions" of dramatic or audiovisual works--for instance, clips from a film--or display of materials such as images and charts in a similar way that they would be displayed during an in-person class. The TEACH Act applies specifically to performance or display of copyrighted materials during a classroom session, which isn't always easily defined in distance education. However, materials should be available to enrolled students no longer than necessary to meet the educational goals of a particular lesson.

    The TEACH Act facilitates and enables the performance and display of copyrighted works in distance education without obtaining permission or a license from the copyright owner under certain circumstances if the checklist of compliance conditions are satisfied.

TEACH Act: Conditions, FAQ's, Resources

  • Fair use: Teaching and scholarship are explicitly mentioned within the scope of U.S. Copyright Law's description of fair use (Section 107), and fair use is crucial to the educational mission of the university. However, fair use does not apply automatically even in educational contexts. It is important to evaluate on a case-by-case basis whether or not your intended use of copyrighted material aligns with fair use. 

Fair Use: Factors, Tools, Checklist