In today's digital world, where reproduction of material is easier than ever, copyright is becoming increasingly important. As a teacher, you may notice that students now have more of an intuition about the concept, given everything that they hear about music piracy, online plagiarism, and other intellectual property issues that might actually affect them. Teachers are not exempt from copyright laws, and you have to be careful about the materials you use in your classroom as well as be prepared to answer any questions that your students might have.
What Is Copyright?
One way to look at copyright is that it is a gift from the government to creators of original work. In order to incentives more people to create, copyright laws protect these authors/artists/inventors/etc. by giving them exclusive rights to their work, thereby allaying any fears that they might work so hard only to have someone else come by and be able to take the credit and profit. Copyright (along with trademark and patents) is part of a legal concept called intellectual property--which basically bestows some of the legal protections given to tangible property (like possessions and land) to intangible things (like a song or a book). This means that you can get in just as much trouble for stealing someone's song as you can for stealing her purse.
Here in the United States, copyright is actually a codified right in the Constitution: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." The specifics of the law are contained in the Copyright Act of 1976, which lays out all of the rights of copyright holders, as well as the provisions of "fair use." This is of particular importance to teachers.
How Do I Know if Something Is Copyrighted?
As a general rule, unless you see explicitly that something isn't (for example, if it has a notice that it has been released under Creative Commons, or is part of the public domain), then you should assume that any original, creative work is copyrighted. Copyright holders don't have to go through any special process to get copyright--it is conferred automatically at the moment of creation (though you can register your copyright, just for extra protection). And since 1989, the copyright symbol or phrases like "all rights reserved" are no longer necessary.
Does Copyright Protection Last Forever?
It does not! The term of protection has changed quite a bit over the years. Most recently, in 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended copyright protection to the duration of the author's life plus seventy years. After that period is up, the work goes into the public domain, which means that it is public property and available for use by anyone. This is especially important for English teachers to know, because it means that many of the literary works that you may want to study (pretty much anything before the 20th century) can be used and distributed in any way you like.
What Rights Do Copyright Holders Have?
The Copyright Act gives five exclusive rights to the creators of a work:
- the right to reproduce (to copy)
- the right to create derivative works (for example, a movie based on a book)
- the right to sell, lease, or rent copies of the work to the public
- the right to perform the work publicly (if it is something that can be performed, such as a literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pantomime, motion picture, or other audiovisual work)
- the right to display the work publicly (if the work is a literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pantomime, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, motion picture, or other audiovisual work)
What this means for you (and your students) is that generally no one else has the right to do any of these things. But wait… what about when you show educational films to your class? Or when you distribute photocopies from books? Or when you use clip-art on a Powerpoint slide?
Luckily, the Copyright Act contains a special exception for the educational use of copyrighted materials. This is part of the "fair use" rule, and it allows someone other than the copyright holder to make limited use of a copyrighted work without permission for purposes such as teaching, research, scholarship, criticism, parody and news reporting. However, it is very important for teachers to understand just how this exception works, and how much "limited use" they can get away with. The next article in this series about copyright law for teachers will examine "fair use" more closely.