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Copyright Basics

copyright basics for students and educators how to stay on the right side of the law


With almost everything you’ve ever wanted to know just an internet search away, it’s more important than ever to understand the basics of copyright law in the United States.

Copyright is an issue of ownership and permissions. So, when you want to use something that someone else created — including images, songs and videos — you must first ask yourself two basic questions:

“Who owns the rights?” and “Did they give me permission to use it?” 

U.S. copyright law automatically protects original works at the moment of creation. The person who holds the copyright can authorize others to republish or repurpose their original work and can set the conditions under which they will allow their original work to be used.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property law governing who has the right to copy something. In the United States, copyright law automatically protects works that meet certain standards, including movies, books, songs, photographs and other works of art.

Generally speaking, copyright protects works that are:

  • Fixed in a tangible medium — meaning digitally, on paper, on film, etc.
  • Original — meaning the work was independently created by a human author.
  • Sufficiently creative — so, for example, lists of information (such as your grocery list) can’t be copyrighted.

Copyright does not typically protect:

  • Ideas, facts or names, although other legal protections may apply, such as trademarks and patents.
  • Ephemeral expressions (lasting for a short time), such as speaking, moving, singing or acting — unless they are somehow “fixed.” For example, copyright does not apply to an improvised performance, although it would apply to a recording of that performance.
  • Work produced by the U.S. government.


How can I know if something is protected under copyright law?

The best answer: Start with the assumption that most things are copyrighted, and seek permission for anything you want to use. This includes content you find on the internet. You can’t assume that because something is on the internet that it is in the public domain and therefore you are free to use it or republish it as you see fit. If you’re not sure you have permission, it’s best not to use the work.

When do published works become “public domain” so anyone can use them? 

Copyright regulations vary by the type of work and when the work was originally published.  For example, most written works published before 1923 are in the public domain, which means they are not protected by copyright law. However, some sound recordings from the same era are still protected. 

But everyone else is doing it…

Copyright law is like the speed limit: Some people may break it, but you don’t want to be the one who gets caught. Even though other people might be violating the copyright of a particular image, song or video, it doesn’t mean the work’s copyright protection has disappeared. It’s still against the law to use a copyrighted work without the copyright owner’s permission — and there still could be consequences if you use copyrighted materials without permission (see below).

What about “fair use?” 

“Fair use” is a narrow exception to copyright law that allows copyright-protected works to be used in some circumstances. “Fair use” includes a classroom-use exemption, which is limited to works used in the classroom for actual teaching. 

Many colleges and universities require or encourage their teachers and students to use a fair-use checklist, which is designed to help individuals weigh the factors favoring and opposing fair use when deciding whether it is acceptable to use a copyrighted work. Most of the questions about fair use center around the factors of purpose, nature, amount, and effect.

Purpose: Is the material being used only in the classroom and only to meet specific educational objectives?

Example: Using a copyrighted diagram of the human anatomy in a presentation about anatomy could be considered fair use, but a cartoon of a person standing behind an x-ray machine used without permission would not.

Nature: Is the work “highly creative” as opposed to factual?

 Example: Students producing a video using a copyrighted piece of popular music as accompaniment for a class assignment would not be considered fair use, since the song is being used for its entertainment value, not for the facts it contains.

Amount: Are only the portions of the work relevant to the educational objectives being used (as opposed to the entire work)?

Example: Showing an entire feature-length movie to a class would not be considered fair use, but showing the one scene relevant to the lesson being taught could be considered fair use.

Effect: Does the use negatively affect the sale of the copyrighted material?

Example: Purchasing one workbook and then photocopying the pages for use with a class of 25 students would not be considered fair use.

What happens if I violate copyright law?

Every day, students and educators face situations in which they must choose to abide by or violate copyright law. Like stealing someone’s wallet, stealing someone’s song is against the law, and there are serious consequences for people who are caught violating copyright law.

Many school districts have adopted policies requiring teachers and students to abide by copyright laws. Districts may impose consequences for violating copyright law that include revoking access to the district’s computer network and other disciplinary action outlined in contracts and codes of conduct, up to and including termination of teachers and suspension or expulsion of students. School districts may also involve law enforcement in certain situations. 

Copyright holders can file lawsuits against individuals or organizations whom they believe have infringed on their copyright. If a copyright holder successfully proves their case, the individual or organization that violated the copyright could be on the hook for thousands of dollars in compensation, plus legal fees.

Certain violations of copyright law are so severe they are considered criminal, including violations for commercial gain, reproducing works with a value of $1,000 or more, and distributing commercial works via the internet. Consequences for criminal copyright infringement range from a maximum of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine for a misdemeanor conviction, up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for a felony conviction.

A word about plagiarism

Plagiarism, which occurs when someone tries to pass off someone else’s work as their own, is similar to copyright infringement. Both are unethical, but copyright infringement is illegal.

A word about licensing 

It’s tempting to want to record and share student performances, including concerts and plays. But owning a recording of a piece of music or the script for a play doesn’t grant you performance rights; only a licensing agreement can do that. So, before sharing that video of your school’s musical — online via Facebook or YouTube, on a DVD, or by email — consider that you may be violating a licensing agreement
and exposing your district to potential liability. 

Licensing agreements also apply to such works as clip art and stock photography. These agreements provide clear answers to the two key copyright questions of who owns the work and did they give permission to use it.

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