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Tips for understanding copyright rules

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U.S. copyright law includes five exclusive rights, but educators can use copyrighted works under the fair use practice.

With headlines about tough copyright rulings fresh in their minds, educators across the nation might hesitate when it comes to using copyrighted material in their lessons or sharing copyrighted works with students.

But according to the American Library Association (ALA), educators should not worry about using such material to boost student knowledge if it falls under the scope of fair use.

The original and intended purpose of copyright law is to promote learning and the dissemination of knowledge, said Carrie Russell, director of the library association’s Program on Public Access to Information. “The copyright law was just as important to them as the post office,” she said, adding that the founding fathers wanted to ensure that the new democracy was well-functioning and that people had access to valuable information.

U.S. copyright law includes five exclusive rights: reproduction, distribution, derivative works, public performance, and public display. Creators of copyrighted works have a limited monopoly on those works, meaning they are the only ones able to profit from or sell their works, for a particular period of time under certain conditions. Currently, the “time limit” on copyright is defined as a lifetime plus 70 years.

One important part of copyright law is idea versus expression, Russell said. A person can’t obtain protection of an idea unless that idea is expressed in an original way.

(Next page: How to determine fair use)

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