In the previous post, we covered a brief history of copyright law in the United States and discussed the importance of a good understanding of these laws for educators, especially writing instructors. Since the majority of writing, academic or not, is in response to the work of others and a process of “joining the conversation,” it’s essential to understand the boundaries of copyright law.

Once again, Troy Hicks highlights the importance of this component. In The Digital Writing Workshop, Hicks writes that “Copyright law, a key component of literacy in an increasingly digital culture, guides us all as we strive to understand the rights that we have as consumers of others’ work, as well as the rights that we have as producers of our own work” (p. 135).

Fair use

One of the key guides we have to understanding copyright is fair use. As previously mentioned, fair use is a doctrine of the copyright laws that allows for copyrighted works to be reproduced or referenced for specific reasons. This includes commentary, criticism, teaching, and more. In addition, fair use outlines four guidelines: purpose of the use, nature of the work, amount of work used, and effect on the market.

The first guideline, the purpose of the use, allows for copyrighted works to be used for educational purposes. Although this provision allows teachers the freedom to use copyrighted works in the classroom, the line between “fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined” (U.S. Copyright Office: Fair Use). Before the digital age, the line was easier to see, and details of fair use such as “one copy per student” were easier to follow. The proliferation of digital media, however, has blurred the line between fair use and infringement and made the application of various fair use rules more difficult to uphold.

What does fair use cover in the classroom?

The answer to this question depends on where you look. Interestingly enough, the U.S. Copyright Office websites says, “There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission.” There are, however, resources that do list specifics.

Hall Davidson, a speaker on a number of digital media issues, has developed a chart that covers the specifics of fair use in the classroom. Davidson does list the U.S. Copyright Office as one of his sources, so it could be simply due to a certain part of a website not being updated. Nevertheless, Davidson has developed a helpful resource for instructors to follow in their application of fair use. The PDF is available here. Note: If the PDF is displayed vertically, opening it in a new window should allow you to rotate it.

More resources for fair use

Another helpful resource for understanding fair use, and copyright laws in general, is mentioned by Hicks in The Digital Writing Workshop on p. 139. It’s is a video by Eric Faden developed from clips in Disney movies that offers a good overview, albeit slightly repetitive, of fair use. The video is available here. For the specific chapter on fair use, skip ahead to 6:20. Be sure to watch the whole video to see why Faden selects Disney movies to review copyright issues.

Lastly, one of the best resources on fair use is the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education developed by the Center for Social Media at American University. This document outlines five common situations for fair use in education, reviews common misconceptions for fair use application, and provides useful definitions and updates on copyright laws.

One of the guiding ideas of this code is that “fair use is flexible” (p. 5). It also states that “It [fair use] is not uncertain and it is not unreliable” (p. 5). The PDF is available here. There is also a video here that serves as a helpful introduction to the document.

After reviewing the above resources, what other questions or concerns do you have about fair use in the classroom?