Copyright law and compliance

Written by Dr. Ronald Wirtz, Coordinator of Library Services

“It’s for the kids…” is a phrase that is frequently heard in education circles, with the common variation “it’s for the students…” at the college or university level.  Faculty members often assume that the “fair use” doctrine of copyright law allows them to use  copyrighted materials without restriction in the classroom, in course reserves, and in courses delivered in the online environment.  Unfortunately, the laws governing copyright are more complex than that, and may expose the teacher to liability if they fail to comply with the law and with the stated institutional copyright policies. See, for example, the Memorandum on Copyright Law and Compliance for the University of Nebraska system, which includes a “fair use” checklist as an appendix.

Within the guidelines of copyright law, classroom teachers are permitted to make one copy of a single article or a limited number of pages from a book for each member of a class.  Making additional copies for storage in a file or for anticipated future use is a violation.  If a teacher wants to distribute the same material to students in subsequent semesters, he or she is required to obtain permission from the copyright owner.  One provision of copyright guidelines that instructors almost universally ignore is that each copy should bear a notice that the material is copyrighted. For more information, consult the Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians provided by the United States Copyright Office.

Teaching in the online environment does not release the instructor from observing copyright law.  If an article is scanned and posted to a Blackboard class under the provisions of “fair use,” such use may be permissible for a single semester.  If the same material is to be used in subsequent semesters, however, it is mandatory to obtain permission from the copyright holder.  This can be troublesome and time consuming, but it is necessary. The “four factor” fair use test is generally just as applicable to online materials and library electronic or print reserves as in the case of photocopied materials.  The use of electronic media in the online environment, including video and music, fall under the rules of the TEACH act, and are more restrictive than those governing face-to-face classroom instruction.  If an online instructor wishes to use the full version of an electronic work online, an individually-negotiated license may be required.  The use of links to items in the library’s subscription resources may make such individual licenses unnecessary since the individual user accesses the resources directly from the library instead of through a copy (see for example, Naxos Music Library, Naxos Spoken Word, NetLibrary and all of the library’s databases).

Fortunately, current technology and license agreements with vendors of full-text library databases make it relatively easy to remain in compliance with copyright law, while at the same time reducing the time and effort that it takes for the individual instructor to build and maintain a course.  Liaison librarians are happy to assist instructional faculty to develop updated course reading lists based on custom searches of appropriate library databases.  “Persistent” or “stable links” may be developed for full-text items selected from the search.  These “permalinks” may be saved as links within Blackboard course pages, placed into an electronic document such as a MS Word file, PDF file or PowerPoint slide, or e-mailed directly to students.  Since no actual copy of the document is made, compliance with copyright law is greatly simplified, and no permission request letters are necessary. If you are interested in learning to use “persistent links” within Blackboard, or with electronic documents that may be saved to disk or e-mailed, please contact your liaison librarian.

Additional information about the use of copyrighted materials in the classroom or the online environment is available through e-Campus.