Ethical Issues in Copyright Compliance and Fair Use Guidelines in Teacher Education

By Vicki S. Napper, Weber State University

1304 University Drive

Ogden, Utah 84408-1304


Abstract: There is an alarming lack of awareness of both copyright law and fair use guidelines in educational setting.  Students at advanced stages of secondary education frequently do not make the connection between plagiarism and abuse of copy rights, and public schools do not appear to be actively promoting copyright compliance by students or teachers. Fair use guidelines are also not readily understood by licensed educators and seldom known by students.  Multiple issues fuel the breaking of copyright compliance: (1) lack of funding to purchase materials, (2) lack of understanding of the economic benefits of copyright, and (3) lack of awareness of the fair use guidelines. Although fair use guidelines are provided for educators and students there still remain the unresolved issues of protection of intellectual properties of teachers and students as well as availability free, quality resources to promote educational reform.

Why, in a society rich with information and an exponentially expanding reservoirs of accessible resources, our public educators the least likely to understand how to access and use these materials and the least likely to pass on an awareness of copyright laws to their students?  This should not be a debatable issue; however, I have found this to be true in many of the educational settings I have worked in as well as studied in. Now as faculty in a teacher education program, I am again surprised at the lack of awareness of copyright laws by students entering my program and also at the lack of compliance shown within educational settings they have emerged from. This discussion is an attempt on my part to find solutions to this issue for my students and my colleagues.


Low Levels Of Literacy About Copyright

After analyzing the content of response papers submitted by students over a two-semester period of time, I discovered that more than 50% of the students did not know that copyright law applied to educators. There was a genuine response of surprise.  In light of the fact that all of the students were either at the junior level of college or had already received degrees before they enter our program, this was surprising to me.  Many of the students expressed the idea that even through they were aware of copyright law; they did not think copyright law applied to teachers and that teachers were free to use any materials available to them in any manner they desired.  This is a very disturbing idea to emerge out of any population of students. Because these students were new into the teacher education program and had no or little exposure to actual courses in our program, they also had not been taught about fair use of copyrighted materials.  The conclusion is inescapable: the public education system had not created environments that promote the idea of protection of intellectual properties nor of the right of the creator of products to control access to those products.

"I knew there were such laws, but I was under the impression that the enforcers of the laws skipped over us or turned their heads because we were educators and the information was there for us to educate the youth of this great nation." (JM)

"I never knew there were so many limitations when incorporating copyrighted materials into your own presentations and works.  I always thought that I just needed to cite my sources to be all right. Most of my classes taught me what plagiarizing was and how to avoid it, but I never learned about copyright laws for the use of multimedia products." (CD)

These statements and sentiments were echoed throughout the responses from five sections of entry-level technology students.  Many of the students made the connection between plagiarizing and copyright laws but some did not. Most were surprised by the complexity of copyright law and fair use guidelines.  Many were discouraged by copyright protections and many others were happy to find the fair use guidelines outlined by the Consortium of College and University Media Centers.[1]

Perhaps as disturbing but not unexpected was the finding that most of the school districts contacted in a survey did not have any formal way to promote copyright compliance. Research was conducted on six school districts surrounding the university.  The school districts are both urban and rural. The three urban districts have a total student population of over 101,000.  The three rural districts have a total student population of a little over 16,250.  The largest urban district has 60,000 students, and the smallest rural district has approximately 1,000 students.[2]

The survey included the following questions: Does the district have a person(s) serving as a technology specialist(s) who informs teachers and students about: (1) First Amendment protection, (2) filtering and blocking obscene material, (3) use of students' personal information and education records, (4) downloading and storing copyrighted material, (5) fair use, (6) defamation in Internet communications, (7) and E-mail harassment?

Each of the six districts had a person designated as a technology specialist who has responsibility for First Amendment protection, filtering and blocking obscene material, proper use of students' personal information and education records.  Each specialist was also responsible for the correct downloading and storing of copyrighted materials, fair use practices, defamation in Internet communications and E-mail harassment. None of the six districts reported that they had addressed First Amendment protection issues, defamation in Internet communications or E-mail harassment.[3]

Additional questions in the survey included ones related to policy on copyright liability, training for new teachers, Codes of Ethics/Conduct, and signs warning users of the misuse of materials. These were the findings:

It is a reasonable question to ask that if indeed copyright laws were being complied with consistently within educational environments, why were only half of the school districts creating any policy to guide compliance? And conversely, if an awareness of copyright laws were pervading the school districts thereby not requiring any kind of board policy to enforce compliance to a Federal Law, why are there so many students who are unaware of the application copyright laws in educational settings? These are not easy questions to answer.

No Levels Of Literacy About Fair Use Guidelines

One possible answer to the question about copyright awareness is that teachers do not understand there are fair use exceptions made to Copyright Law for educators and students.  In environments where resources are thin or non-existent, the urge to use materials regardless of unforeseeable consequences can be high.  This is not to imply that educators are not moral about what they do; instead, it could easily be said this is a group of people who are working against many obstacles (economic as well as political) to provide adequate and timely information to students. Anyone who has ever been a teacher can recall finding just “the perfect” resource to use in a class and not being able to purchase enough copies for use by students because there was no budget for extras.  The option usually is to have multiple students share one or few resources.  In places with high numbers of students, this can be problematic in the flow of instruction. How many class periods should a student wait until they have access to the information or resource for learning? In an ideal world, none.  The materials should be available when needed without the need to replicate illegal additional sets.

Frustration About Lack Of Available Materials For Use In Classrooms

When the above mentioned entry level students into teacher education were first introduced to the idea of the fair use exclusions, they either expressed relief at having a way to use materials or confusion about the materials provided to them by school districts or hostility at a limitation to their ability to teach with current or appropriate materials they did not believe would be provided in a timely manner to them or their students. This is a question that is not easy to solve.  Certainly under the principle of copyright protection, the creator of products deserves to control the monetary rewards of their efforts. The irony is that many of the authors of books or articles actually loose control over the dissemination of their ideas.  They cannot give permission to a teacher to use those materials, but instead, must refer the teacher or student requesting permission to use copyright compliance personnel in large corporations. There should be a streamlined process outlined and readily available to exactly the purpose of requesting permission to use materials. Most teachers and even fewer students know how to obtain permission for use of materials.  The assumption being made about using materials without permission is if “they” don’t know, it won’t hurt anyone.


Awareness Of The Economic Benefits Of Copyright Compliance

It is extremely important to make a connection between an economy based on information and the financial benefits of the copyright process. Giving the response that copyright is the law of the land does not inspire compliance.  There should also be motivating reasons for compliance. Frequently in discussions with teachers and students, they comment on how much money the copyright holder must be making compared to the end users’ income base.  What is frequently not mentioned is the economic base created by the business of replication of copyrighted materials.  It is easy to loose site of the idea of people other than the copyright holder or Big Businesses benefiting from copyright compliance. The idea of people depending on the sale of copyrighted materials for the continuation of their jobs creates support of copyright benefits. The growth of the economic structure of an information rich society cannot afford societal ignorance of what factors create that structure.

Awareness Of Fair Use Protections For Educators

The umbrella of fair use provides benefits for educators and students.  The restrictions for time are more restrictive for teachers who are displaying or using copyrighted materials than for students, but both may use copyrighted materials, in proper proportions, to extend their ability to teach and to learn and for proof of their talents.  This is the intended focus of the educational system.  The ability to access ideas is not limited.  Ideas cannot be copyrighted.  The uniqueness of expression of an idea is what allows the process of continual, intellectual, creative renewal to occur and thrive. 

If we are indeed in a culture based on the cumulative nature of information as well as the expression of new ideas arising from problem-solving processes, the body of professional educators should not be reusing fixed ideas without renewal.  Understanding of knowledge evolves and within that context of understanding, people change in their perceptions and processes of applying knowledge.  Fair use not only protects the accrual of copyright benefit to rightful owners but it also provides protection to the intellectual integrity of this nation through the promotion of change.  Specifically, the fair use guidelines promote appropriate usage of multimedia presentations, rich with knowledge and expression of ideas, for two years.  Then the same fair use guidelines promote the idea of renewal and change (Fair Use Guidelines, Section 4, time, portion, copying and distribution). According to the American Library Association: (1995, Fair Use In The Electronic Age section. ¶1)

The genius of United States copyright law is that, in conformance with its constitutional foundation, it balances the intellectual property interests of authors, publishers and copyright owners with society's need for the free exchange of ideas. Taken together, fair use and other public rights to utilize copyrighted works, as confirmed in the Copyright Act of 1976, constitute indispensable legal doctrines for promoting the dissemination of knowledge, while ensuring authors, publishers and copyright owners appropriate protection of their creative works and economic investments. [5]

A Reflection On Application Of Copyright And Fair Use In Actual Settings

Although multiple reasons for compliance with copyright laws and fair use guidelines can be made, the final resolution will ultimately be determined by availability of resources. The pressure of education is to provide learning experiences.  The pressure of copyright is to provide income.  This issue will continue to create conflicts. The resulting balance must be a resolve for those groups depending on the flow of information for educational purposed to find solutions for the future. If this balance is allowed to decay or become lost, there will be a huge loss in personal educational freedoms.

Issues Unresolved

Protection Of Educator's Intellectual Properties And Distribution Of Materials To Students.

Most educators in K-12 settings develop materials specific for their personal needs.  The intellectual properties of those materials are seldom promoted as a topic of discussion at local PTA meetings.  However, the reality is those materials are indeed copyrightable under the law.  Fortunately, many if not most educators tend to share those intellectual properties with their peers.  Large databases of lesson plans are appearing on the Internet for access by prelicensed educators as well as licensed educators.  There may be no other profession that so freely gives of its intellectual properties.  It would be interesting to see the results if drug conglomerates provided web sites with lists of formulas for effective medications. There is no argument under the law that lesson plans are unique and tangible expressions of ideas that belong to their creators. If anything, there is a cultural expectation that teachers will provide lesson plans and handouts free for all to use.

Availability Of Quality Materials That Are Free To Educators And Students

There exists an enormous need for free, quality materials for non-profit educational groups.  Many free resources are also ones that are not in high demand because they are outdated or not professional prepared.  Is there a need for a national bureaucracy dedicated to creation of free, useful, quality materials for all grade levels?  Although the government funds a national printing office for replication of reports and other printed materials created by government entities, those materials are not generally geared toward traditional educational settings. Free documents geared for professional applications in graduate schools seldom benefit the 1st grade teacher trying to teach about the balance of nature.

The reluctance of the same federal agencies promoting educational reform to also promote affordable educational materials is not unusual.  If the idea of educational reform is to truly become effective, then the idea of affordable, useful, quality materials must also emerge.  Why can’t there be a way to purchase the same textbooks for educational purposes so that copyright owners win, publishers win, and most importantly, teachers and students win.

[1] V.S. Napper & M. Lofgreen. 2003. Catch the chicks before they leave the hen house: Copyright in Teacher Education. Presentation. AACE Conference, Albuquerque NM.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] American Library Association.(1995). Retrieved Sept 25, 2003 from