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Copyright Issues

TΦ101 strongly recommends that instructors be scrupulous about intellectual property. It is a sad truth that the nation's current impossibly restrictive copyright legislation appears to be the result of massive lobbying by Disney to keep Mickey Mouse and his cartoon friends out of the public domain (Sprigman). However, if we expect our students to respect our expectations regarding academic integrity, we should model conscientious behavior ourselves. There are legal and appropriate ways to obtain material for your course.  Here are some informal guidelines, but please consult your institution's general counsel for legal opinion. 

Legal Sources for Course Material:


  • Public Domain. Anything published before 1923 can safely assumed to be in the public domain, and you may copy or reprint it in any way you wish. The mouse first appeared inSteamboat Willie in 1928, which is doubtless why anything after the twenties may be protected.   Many of the classic texts of philosophy are available in older translations and may be obtained, for example, from project Gutenberg.  One must also be careful of modern editions since the footnotes, introductions, and other associated materials might be protected.


  • Fair Use. The U.S. copyright code provides some legitimate opportunities for instructors to reproduce works and distribute them to their students. You should be familiar with the details,but the general idea is that the copying must be done for an educational purpose, must be a portion of the work (some people suggest that the copied portion should be less than 5% of the total work), and must not impact on the market value of the copyrighted work.  So, for example, if you want your students to read Plato's allegory of the cave, you may certainly copy it from a modern translation, since the passage is less than 5% of the Republic, and the fact that you are copying this passage won't have any impact on the sale of the whatever translation of Republicyou have used.  


  • The TEACH Act. In 2002, Congress passed theTEACH Act, which was an attempt to do for digitalized information and on-line courses what "fair use" had done for traditional courses and print material.  It does not in any way supplant fair. Other than going to law school yourself and reading the act, the best way to thread through the complexities is to consult the "crash course" from the University of Texas.


  • Using Video Material. A lot of professors use short clips from movies to illustrate points or stimulate discussion in their classes, and there is a lot of software out there that makes it possible to put segments of a DVD on a hard drive. Recent regulation changes, which TΦ101 does not pretend to understand, now give professors much more leeway in extracting short media clips for use in classes.  Here is some documentation on the new regulations.


  • Obtaining copyright permission.  Ultimately it is not that difficult to obtain copyright permission for more or less anything that interests you; there will usually be a fee, but it will typically be far less than the cost for your students of purchasing the entire book.  The simplest way is to work with the Copyright Clearance Center, a non-profit company that can obtain copyrights on many published works.


 Details on Fair Use:


Fair Use is defined as follows in: Section 107 of Title 17, United States Code regarding Copyright Law: 


107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use.


Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106 and 106a, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phono records or by any other means specified by that section for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:


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. The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all of the above factors.




Office of General Counsel, University of Texas, "The Teach Act Finally becomes Law."  Nov.13, 2002. 14 January 2008 

Reproduction of copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians, Circular 21 U.S. Copyright office.  229 January 2008 

Sprigman, Chris, "THE MOUSE THAT ATE THE PUBLIC DOMAIN: Disney, The Copyright Term Extension Act, And eldred V. Ashcroft ."  FindLaw, March 5, 2002. 18 January 2008 


Author: John Immerwahr
Update:  August 10, 2010

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