You thought copyright was confusing before, but no, this is where it gets tricky – copyright law in online education. When you post something copyrighted on a web page or send it across the internet, you are in a sense publishing that material, and that’s quite different than showing a slide for a few minutes in a classroom or handing around a photocopied article to a few students. That’s giving everyone, everywhere the ability to take or use someone else’s work without compensation.
In order to address the unique aspects of online education and copyright law, Congress passed the TEACH Act in 2002. The Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act made it legal for teachers employed by accredited schools to use copyrighted materials in online education in pretty much the same ways they could be used in face-to-face classroom settings. Sounds great, eh? Oh, but there’s a catch – there are a set of conditions that must be met for the TEACH Act to apply:
An institution must have an established copyright policy and educational information on copyright law available.
The copyrighted material must be used in a lesson or instructional activity – supplemental material used for additional information or extra reading is not allowed.
Access must be limited only to enrolled students, and only for the duration of a class or course.
Technological controls must be in place to prevent students from downloading or copying material or transmitting it on to someone else.
Commercial materials created explicitly for distance education cannot be used. Required textbooks and workbooks cannot be posted instead of purchased. Illegally acquired material cannot be used.
All material available to students must come with a notice about copyright law.
Those conditions are tough to meet, especially the ones about controlling downloads and access. Luckily, all is not lost if you cannot do it.
Links - Instead of giving your students copies of copyrighted material, give them the links to go the original sources online. It’s more efficient anyway. All you have to do is check frequently to make sure the links are still good.
Permissions - Copyright holders will often grant permission to use their work for a fee or for educational purposes. Sometimes an email is all it takes, but more often it’s a lengthy process.
Fair use - The fair use exemption to copyright law can still be used in online education, but you need to be very careful. As a practical matter, your treatment of someone else’s intellectual property in the classroom is just between you and your conscience. It might make it hard to insist that your students do not plagiarize when you make someone else work free, and all but impossible to show them that science is all about honest and ethical inquiry. But the chances of being caught or prosecuted for copyright infringement are vanishingly small.
With distance education, though, it’s a different story. Once you put something online it’s there for anyone with a search engine and a professional or financial stake in protecting their rights to find. So I suggest you post as little copyrighted material as possible (use links instead), and show good faith by always crediting the author when you do. Once a class is over, take the material down.
For more detailed information on the TEACH Act and distance education, visit these sites -
TEACH Act Toolkit
Stanford Library's Fair Use website