The information presented in this guide is for informational purposes only and should NOT be construed as legal advice. If you are looking for legal advice, please contact the University of Maine Office of General Counsel.
There are certain steps you can take to decrease your chances of infringing on someone else's copyright in the process of teaching a course. However, copyright is complicated, so when in doubt, get in touch with the University's legal counsel. Here are some things you might consider:
Copyright matters because it is a legal protection for any permanently fixed creative work you create, as well as a legal protection for any permanently fixed creative work that has been created by others. Copyright allows the creator or copyright holder of the work the exclusive right (with limited exceptions) to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute or sell the copyrighted work, and to perform or display the copyrighted work publicly (17 USC §106). If someone other than the work's creator or copyright holder wants to engage in these activities, generally they must obtain permission from the copyright holder to do so legally. If someone engages in these activities without permission from the copyright holder and without any of copyright law's exceptions applying to that person's case, that person is considered to be legally infringing upon the copyright of the work, and can be subject to legal action.
The exceptions that place limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright holder are enumerated in Title 17 of the United States Code in sections 107 through 122 (for the brief titles of each section, consult Title 17, Chapter 1). The exception most often applied to teaching and scholarship is section 107, or the fair use exception.
Fair use is an exception created to the copyright laws that sometimes allows people to legally use copyrighted material created by others without obtaining permission "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research" (17 USC §107). In order to fall into the category of fair use, a use of copyrighted material must be analyzed in relation to the four factors below (note that how important any of the factors are considered to be is decided on a case by case basis, and that there are no absolute or easy rules about these factors):
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