Online Teaching Blog

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Teaching online without violating copyright laws

Teaching online without violating copyright laws

by Sharon Jumper, JD
December 31, 2015

When teaching online, faculty and course developers need to ensure that they are complying with copyright laws. Copyright laws in the United States provide protection to both published and unpublished original works of authorship, performance, or creation, including digital content. A basic understanding of copyright laws can ensure that faculty and institutions remain in legal compliance.

When teaching online, faculty and course developers must be careful to not violate copyright laws by illegally copying or disseminating protected content. Not all faculty who teach online fully understand what copyright laws are, how they apply to course delivery and development work, or what to do when they have a question.

Copyright laws in the United States provide protection to both published and unpublished original works of authorship, performance, or creation. It is also important to note that when teaching online, the Millennium Digital Copyright Act affords the same protection to electronic or digital content as printed or tangible works. It is important to note that copyright protection is automatic – unlike patents and trademarks, it does not require application and registration with the government in order for content to be protected. Copyrighted materials generally cannot be used without the express permission or a license from the owner. In courses, the “license” to use materials is often implicit through library subscriptions or the adoption of a textbook.

Copyright protection for an individual lasts for the duration of the creator’s life plus 70 years. Copyright protection for content owned by a corporation lasts for either 120 years from creation or 95 years from first publication, whichever is shorter. The penalties for infringement of copyright include: monetary damages caused by the infringement, seizure and destruction of all illegal copies, loss of profits obtained by use of the illegal content, punitive damages, and in some instances, criminal fines and imprisonment.

Content protected by copyright to be aware of when developing courses can include:

  • Literature, journalistic, and other written works;
  • music and lyrics;
  • dramatic and choreographed works;
  • pictures, photos, drawings, graphics, cartoons, and sculptures;
  • movies, television shows, and other multimedia works;
  • sound recordings; and
  • architectural works.

Non-profit educational organizations may be eligible to copy or use protected materials without charge or permission under the “Fair Use” doctrine, so long as the source of the protected material is properly attributed. The Fair Use doctrine permits limited use of copyrighted content for brief quotation or excerpts for use in a lesson – you may not, however, disseminate copies of an entire article or chapter without express permission of the copyright holder.

“Fair Use” is a commonly misunderstood exception to copyright law, and it is important to note that for-profit educational organizations are not entitled to “Fair Use” of copyrighted materials. Official government materials, such as statutes, reports, court opinions, or transcripts Congressional hearings are considered to be “public domain” materials and are not protected by copyright; these items may be used or disseminated by an organization without the need for express license or permission to do so.

When assigning copyrighted articles for reading assignments while teaching online or developing online course content, one should simply give students the citation information or a link. The students should then access the materials on their own - you should not actually provide a copy of the materials in the course. Likewise, copyrighted video content should not be copied into the course shell. You may embed a source code, if there is one provided by the host site, but the better practice is to provide a link to the host site.

By following these simple rules while teaching online, you can ensure that your courses remain copyright compliant.