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Teaching Biology Blog

Copywhat? Copyright in the Classroom, part 1

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Science and teaching are both collaborative ventures. Every scientific discovery is built on the work that came before it, and scientists freely, eagerly share their ideas with one another. Teaching is all about sharing knowledge as much as possible. I wonder if that’s why so many science teachers have so little regard for copyright law? And we don't, we really don’t. I know I’ve happily used copyrighted photos and diagrams in almost every lecture, shown bootleg nature videos a lot more than once, and photocopied plenty of articles for lab handouts. None of that ever gave me a second thought. Until now.


I’ve spent the past several months editing an online biology course put together by social authoring – different professors write each chapter and supply illustrations, homework and lab assignments. I was taken aback, no, I was stunned, well actually I was sent into sputtering fits and rants by how often people sent in copyrighted material. They weren’t trying to pull a fast one, they genuinely thought it was okay. Okay to copy definitions because they were just a sentence or two. Okay to use someone else’s chart if they wrote their own description of it. Okay to cut and paste data or directions since they’d been using them for years in their classes.


Once I calmed down a little, I realized that although I did know all of that was illegal, I was not all that up on the details of copyright law. Was what I did in the classroom legal? Or when I posted material on my class web page or emailed information to a student, how about then? I’ve been exploring the convoluted rules of copyright law and fair use and distance education, and am going to share it all with you. Whee! This is the first of a series of blogs on copyright in the classroom. If I confuse you or myself along the way, I hope you’ll speak up.

Let’s start with the basics:


CopyrightU.S. copyright law gives the author of a work the exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, and display all or part of that work for varying periods of time. Material published before 1923 is now in the public domain. Work created in 1978 or later is copyrighted for lifetime of the author plus 70 years. The stuff produced between 1923 and 1978 is in a bit of a gray area. The best bet is to assume anything younger than 1923 is copyrighted unless it specifically says otherwise.

It’s important to note that copyright law protects the expression of ideas, like articles, drawings, and videos, but it doesn’t apply to the ideas themselves. It’s a violation of law to copy a genome map produced by a biotech firm, but it is perfectly legal to describe the genome in your own words.


Public domain – Material in the public domain is a form of public property and it can be copied and reproduced at will, though it is still considered unethical not to attribute the work to the original author. Public domain works include material whose copyright has expired or whose authors have waived some or all of their rights. It’s important to realize putting material out for public view is not the same as putting it in the public domain. Writings and graphics on the internet fall under copyright laws as much as if they were written on paper. Again, it’s best to assume that anything you find online is copyrighted unless it clearly says otherwise.

One thing that often trips up science teachers is how the U.S. government works. Material produced by the federal government and its employees is in the public domain, and a good thing too because they put out some of the best science. But government scientists often collaborate with people who work in the private sector, and they frequently retain the rights to their work even if they grant the government permission to use it in a publication. Make sure you read the fine print.

So those are the basics of copyright and public domain. In later blogs, I’ll cover how you can and can’t use copyrighted material in face-to-face and distance education, the doctrine of fair use, and the TEACH Act.

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