Copyright Basics for Teaching

Contributed by Rebecca P. Butler, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment
Northern Illinois University

Updated 2020 by Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning

Questions to Ask When Borrowing, Copying, or Performing a Work

  1. Does your use of the work constitute a fair use?
  2. Is the work in the public domain?
  3. Do you have permission from the owner of the work?
  4. Do you have a license to borrow/copy/perform the work publicly?
  5. Does this use fit under the classroom or another statutory exemption?
  6. Does this use fit under copyright guidelines?

If the answer to any one of these questions is “yes,” go ahead and copy or perform the work.  If you answer “no” to all of these questions, either find another source or create your own. (See the explanations below to determine whether your material fits the guidelines.)

Fair Use Factors and (What Uses Tip in Favor of Fair Use)

  1. Purpose and Character of the Use (teaching in a public nonprofit institution)
  2. Nature of the Work (nonfiction, published works)
  3. Quantity to Be Borrowed (the smallest amount borrowed, that is not the HEART of the work)
  4. Marketability of the Work (use of the work does not affect its marketability by the copyright owner)

Public Domain

  1. Works free to use any way that you want
  2. Works published before 1924
  3. Works for which the owner/creator has given up all ownership
  4. Most federal government documents
  5. Beginning in 2020, works published 96 years ago will enter the public domain every January 1st until 2073; from 2073 onward, works by creators who died 70 years prior will enter the public domain each year.

“Public Domain” [are] works free to use any way that you want.

Permission Letter Contents (Get it in writing!)

  1. Your name and address
  2. Date
  3. Name and address of copyright owner/creator or publisher
  4. Request for permission to copy work
  5. Work title, copyright date, publisher, place of publication, distributor, other information imperative to the specific work under consideration
  6. How the work under consideration will be used
  7. Number of times the work under consideration will be used
  8. Date by which permission is needed
  9. If the wrong person has been contacted, request for name of the correct person
  10. Inclusion of a self-addressed, stamped envelope
  11. Thank you
  12. Signature of Requestor
  13. Place for owner/creator/publisher to sign and date that permission has been granted


  1. A license is a contract purchased by or given to the user by the owner of the work or a clearinghouse designated to represent the owner.
  2. The license states specifically in what way the user may borrow, copy, or perform the work.
  3. Contract law supersedes copyright law.

Classroom Exemption

  1. Section 110 of 1976 U.S. Code (U.S. Copyright Act)
  2. Provides for use of lawfully-obtained copyrighted materials in face-to-face instruction and in transmissions.
  3. Use of copyrighted work must be
    1. In a nonprofit educational institution;
    2. In a classroom or similar place of instruction;
    3. A performance or display that is a regular part of systematic instruction; or
    4. A performance or display directly related to the teaching content.

“Classroom Exemption” provides for use of lawfully-obtained copyrighted materials in face-to-face instructions and in transmissions.

Fair Use Guidelines

  1. Congressionally created
  2. Not law but helpful when trying to abide by law
  3. Not binding
  4. By following, users are considered to have acted in good faith
  5. Represent minimums rather than maximums
  6. Example of Guidelines: Fair Use Guidelines for Educational Multimedia
    1. motion media (e.g., film, video): 10% or 3 min.
    2. text: 10% or 1000 words
    3. music/lyrics: 10% or 30 seconds
    4. illustrations/photos: 5 images or 10%
    5. database: 10% or 2500 cells

Selected Resources

Association for Information Media and Equipment,

Butler, R.P. 2004. Copyright for teachers and librarians. New York:Neal-Schuman.

Copyright Clearance Center,

Creative Commons (2011). [Creative Commons develops, supports, and stewards legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing, and innovation.]

U.S. Copyright Office,

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Suggested citation

Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2020). Copyright basics for teaching. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from

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