Copyright Instruction

What You Need to Know About Copyright


1. Copyright is immediate and omnipresent.

What you need to know In other words, as soon as a work is created and fixed in a medium of expression - written on a page, posted to the web, etc. - it is protected by copyright.

2. Copyright lasts a long time.

Copyright protection can last for decades after the original author has died. It can be a bit tricky to figure out when copyright expires but as a rule of thumb works created before 1923 are generally no longer protected by copyright. Once copyright expires works enter the public domain where anyone can use them. New works generally enter the public domain 70 years after an author has died. This Digital Copyright Slider can help you figure out if a work has entered the public domain.

3. Some things aren't subject to copyright.

Ideas, facts, short phrases, government works, and works created before 1923 are generally not covered by copyright and may be used by anyone.  You can find some great free and open materials at Ohio State's Identifying United States federal government documents in the public domain page.

4. Copyright law recognizes the special nature of educational use.

Fortunately, since copyright is all about promoting the expression of new ideas, copyright law protects academic instruction with several important exceptions.

If you'd like to know more about the basics of copyright this Crash Course may be helpful. You can also read more about the basics of copyright in the Copyright Formalities FAQ


Copyright Exceptions for Education

The Copyright Act includes numerous exceptions that permit you to use a work without seeking permission. This section focuses on four specific exceptions that are often useful for instructors.


Exceptions for Education


The Classroom Exception

The Classroom Exception permits you to use copyrighted works without permission as part of classroom instruction at NCSU. Specifically, it permits you or your students to perform or display a work in the classroom or a similar space devoted to instruction such as a lab, or library room - as long as the work is related to your instruction.

In brief, if your use is a performance or display, in the classroom, and part of your instruction you don't need to ask permission.


The TEACH Act provide a similar exception for instruction in the online environment. Like the Classroom Exception, TEACH permits you to use materials without permission when you are in the equivalent of a classroom - generally on a web site that is limited to those enrolled in your class with password protection. You can also only perform or display works in a comparable amount to what you would make available in the classroom. Finally, for dramatic audiovisual works like movies you must use "limited portions" of the work.

In brief, TEACH works a lot like the Classroom Exception but you must retain the classroom character through limited access and comparable quantities and dramatic AV works must be used in "limited portions."

There are many excellent tools to help you apply TEACH such as the TEACH Act Toolkit and the TEACH Act Flowchart.

You can also contact the Center for assistance.

Fair Use

Fair use is an exception that permits use when the benefit to the public outweighs the harm done to the rightsholder. The decision whether a use is "fair" or not is based on four factors:

  1. the purpose and character of your use
  2. the nature of the work your are using
  3. the amount and substantiality you are using
  4. the effect of your use on the market for the original

In other words, you need to ask what you are doing, what you are using, how much you are using, and whether your use is hurting the value of the work.

Fair use is not a checklist where all four factors must be on one side nor is it a vote where the majority of factors rules. Fair use is about looking at all four factors to strike a balance that permits use for the public good that does not do too much harm to the creator of the original work.

Fair use can be confusing and even frustrating since it rarely gives you clear, definitive "yes/no" answers. Fortunately there are many good tools to help you decide if your use is fair. Columbia's Fair Use Checklist can walk you through the process and document your good faith analysis. The ALA's Fair Use Evaluator can also be useful.

And of course you can always contact the Center for a private consultation on fair use or to schedule an instruction session for your class, department, or research group.

Read more about fair use in the Fair Use FAQ

The Library Exception

The Library Exception is a set of rules regarding library copying and sharing. It gives qualified libraries flexibility in their decisions about sharing works owned by the library as well as archiving and preserving works.

The Library Exception is fairly complex, particularly for non-librarians. The Section 108 Spinner can help you with decisions about archiving and library use.

For further explanation about The Library Exception and answers to specific questions feel free to contact the Center.

Copyright in Context

In the classroom

Copyright in Context

The classroom is one of the safest places to use copyrighted works since use is limited to a specific, small group for a short duration and is generally non-commercial and educational.

If you would like to use a work first consider the work itself. Is it in the public domain? Does the school have a license to use it? If permission is needed and you don't have permission consider whether you qualify for the Classroom Exception for performance and display. Next, ask yourself if your use is fair in light of your educational purpose. If none of these exceptions apply to your use you can always seek permission or have your students find a copy of the work online, in the library or from a vender.

Examples of Safe Uses

  • A professor includes images she downloaded on the internet in a powerpoint lecture given in class.
  • A student shows clips from a Netflix-obtained film as part of a presentation on filmmaking.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Wuf lead the class in singing the public domain N.C. State Alma Mater to get them pumped up for the NCSU-UNC game.
  • A professor hands out thirty copies of a poem to be discussed in class.

Examples of Risky Uses

  • A professor posts her powerpoint slides, including downloaded images, on the open web.
  • A students shows clips from the same film downloaded from The Pirate Bay.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Wuf sing Lady Gaga's latest single to get the class pumped up for the NCSU-UNC game.
  • A professor hands out thirty copies of the coursepack to be used over the entire semester.

Read more about copyright in the classroom in the Copyright in the Classroom FAQ

Digital and Distance Education

Digital Distance

Digital and distance education shares many of the privileged qualities of classroom use such as non-commercial, educational use. Unlike classroom use, however, the open nature of online instruction makes using copyrighted works more complicated.

If you plan to use a work, first ask yourself about the work itself. If it is in the public domain or the university has a license to use it you are free to use it, but you should be sure that any license covers digital use. Linking to an online resource is almost always permitted unless you know that the site is infringing. Next you should consider whether your use is covered by the TEACH Act that permits distance education in amounts similar to classroom use but only permits streaming of "portions" of dramatic video and requires password protection. You should also consider whether your use qualifies as a fair use in light of your educational purpose. If none of these exceptions support your use you can always seek permission.

Examples of Safe Uses

  • A professor shares a recording of her lecture, including images of various magazine covers, in the electronic reserves system for her students to watch.
  • A student links to a news article humorously related to discussion on a bulletin board.
  • All students in a class on popular music and culture share clips from their favorite musicians in Moodle to illustrate a discussion on genres of music.
  • A professor uses clips from various films to illustrate a point in her history seminar at NCSU.

Examples of Risky Uses

  • A professor shares a recording of her lecture, including an entire database of magazine covers in the electronic reserves system.
  • A student links to The Pirate Bay and suggests downloading a film.
  • All students in a class on popular music and culture post full versions of their favorite songs on the open web as a way to introduce themselves.
  • A professor uses lengthy clips from various films to illustrate a point in her lecture to a local civic organization.

Read more about copyright in digital education in the Copyright Online FAQ