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Copyright for Instructors

This guide provides information about copyright for University instructors.

Please note!

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.

How can I decrease my chances of infringing on someone else's copyright?

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:

  • Where possible, use purchased and licensed library resources (books, electronic books, journal articles) for your students' readings.  Fogler Library has already paid for access to these materials for students, staff, and faculty.  Within Blackboard, you can link directly to the material(s) you would like your students to read; if you're not sure how to link to the materials you want to use, ask your subject specialist librarian!  Links to licensed resources are more often interpreted as fair use than posted copies of an article or a book chapter.  (For more information about fair use, visit our fair use page.)
  • If your students purchase a textbook, they are paying the copyright holder for their work, which is not likely to be seen as infringement.  If you provide a copy of an entire textbook or book to your students, you are preventing the copyright holder from being paid for their work and likely infringing upon their copyright by distributing free copies of their work.  The potential non-infringing exceptions to the latter example are:
    • if you are the copyright holder of the work, in which case you can distribute your work however you like,
    • if you are using a book the library owns or is licensed to use, in which case the library has already paid for access, or
    • if you are using online open educational resources, in which case the creator of those materials has decided to make them available free of charge.
  • If you or your students are creating videos or other multimedia projects, make sure that all the material used in such projects is material in which you or they have copyright or material they have permission to use.  Using a popular song or footage from a television show, for example, may constitute copyright infringement.  (For more information about public domain and Creative Commons materials, please see the Legal Rights and Licenses page.)
  • If you are considering showing a film to your students, be aware that films shown in an in-person class meeting are more likely to fall under a fair use exception and less likely to infringe copyright, as long as the films have been legally obtained (purchased or borrowed from the library).  Films shown on campus outside a class meeting tend to be considered public performances, which often require paying the copyright holder to avoid infringement, so you would need to obtain permission from the copyright holder to show the film publicly.  Students borrowing films from the library to watch them individually are acting within the terms of the film's license and thus are generally not considered to be in violation of copyright.  Providing access to a film digitally that you do not own the copyright to and have not obtained permission to share digitally is very likely to be considered infringement because you are preventing the copyright holder from being paid for their work and likely infringing upon their copyright by providing free access to their work.
  • For more information about avoiding copyright infringement, or if you are uncertain whether or not you might be infringing on someone's copyright, you can always contact the University's legal counsel.  You may also consider requesting permission from the copyright holder to use their work.  (However, if they do not grant permission, you have to comply with their decision.)

Why does copyright matter?

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.

What are the exceptions to copyright?

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.

What is fair use?

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):

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work (17 USC §107).
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