frequently asked questions about copyright

Following are answers to some of the questions that school librarians and media specialists encounter frequently.

What is covered by copyright law?

Almost every original work is copyrighted immediately upon creation in tangible form. It is not necessary to register the work in order for copyright protection to apply. Examples of original works include literary works; musical works, including any accompanying words; dramatic works, including any accompanying music; pantomimes and choreographic works; pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works; motion pictures and other audiovisual works; sound recordings, and architectural works.

What does "fair use" mean?

Section 107 of the Copyright Act allows for fair use of a copyrighted work, "… for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research…"

There are four factors that must be considered
when determining if a use is a fair use:

  1. It will be used for nonprofit educational purposes.
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work. This is a gray area: using excerpts from an out-of-print book or old magazine is more likely to be considered fair use than using excerpts from a work that students could purchase.
  3. The amount of material used. Using a small portion of a copyrighted work is more likely to be considered fair use; using a large portion or the entire work is more likely to be considered a violation of copyright.
  4. The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the work. A cautionary note: If excerpts are pages from a workbook or a set of poems from an anthology, providing students with copies could be seen as an effort to avoid purchasing texts for each student.

What works are in the public domain?

Works considered to be in the public domain are
not protected by copyright. They include:

  • Works published before January 1, 1923.
  • Works published between 1923 and 1978 that did not contain a valid copyright notice.
  • Works published between 1923 and 1978 for which the copyright was not renewed.
  • Works authored by employees of the federal government.
  • Works that the copyright owner has freely granted to the public domain.

No works published after July 1, 1978 will pass into the public domain until at least 2048. Even anonymous works are protected by copyright until 95 years after publication.

What are teachers legally allowed to copy?

Here's what section 107 of the Copyright Act says
about copying materials for classroom use:
A single copy may be made of any of the following by or for a teacher for use in teaching a class:

  • A chapter from a book.
  • An article from a periodical or a newspaper.
  • A short story, short essay, or short poem, whether or not from a collective work.
  • A chart, graph, diagram, drawing, cartoon, or picture from a book, periodical, or newspaper.


Multiple copies (not to exceed more than one copy per pupil in a course) may be made for classroom use provided that:

  • Each copy contains a notice of copyright.
  • The copying meets the test of brevity
    is defined as:
    • Poetry – (1) a complete poem if less than 250 words, and not more than 2 pages if printed, or (2) an excerpt of not more than 250 words if from a longer poem.
    • Prose – (1) a complete article, story, or essay of less than 2,500 words, or (2) an excerpt from any prose work of not more than 1,000 words or 10% of the work, whichever is less, but in any event a minimum of 500 words.
    • Illustration – one chart, graph, diagram, drawing, cartoon or picture per book or per periodical issue.
  • The copying meets the test of spontaneity
    means that the teacher makes the decision to copy the material and that the timing of that decision does not allow time to request permission to use the material.
  • The copying meets the cumulative effect
    means that the material will be used in only one course and that not more than one short poem, article, story, or essay or two excerpts from the same author or more than three from the same collective work may be copied during one class term. In addition, there cannot be more than nine instances of such multiple copying for one course during one class term.

Are the rules different for material found
on the Internet?

While fundamental principles of copyright law still apply, there are some differences when it comes to material found on the Internet.
Here are a few facts to remember:

  • Most information on the Internet is copyrighted.
  • Just because a copyrighted work is posted on the Internet does not mean that it was posted legally. Always request permission to use copyrighted material found on the Internet from the creator (copyright owner), not from a secondary source.
  • Keep in mind that print rights and electronic rights are two different things. If a teacher wants to use something online (on a class website, for example), permission must be obtained to use that material electronically.

What about software?

Software also is copyrighted automatically on creation. There are three categories of software, and all—even freeware—are covered by copyright. They are:

    1. Commercial software. Most commercial software licenses allow one archival copy to be made, and they prohibit modifying the software.
    2. Shareware software. Most shareware licenses allow purchasers to make and distribute copies, but once the software is adopted for use, a fee must be paid.
    3. Freeware software. Most freeware licenses allow for copies to be made and distributed for not-for-profit use.
Teachers cannot:
  • Install personal commercial or shareware software on school computers.
  • Make copies of personal commercial software to distribute to other teachers or students.
  • Make copies of commercial software that is licensed to the school or district to share with other teachers or students.
  • Use shareware for extended periods of time without paying for it.
Teachers can:
  • Install a personal commercial software program on a single classroom computer for classroom use.
  • Copy software that is licensed to the school or district for limited professional use at home.

For additional information see: