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Yes, You Can Use Copyrighted Material in the Classroom

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A national magazine tells a professor she needs hundreds of permissions to use its cover photos in her class, when in fact, she could claim fair use, which does not require payment or permission. Many teachers want to use YouTube as a teaching tool but aren’t sure if it’s legal, while others warn their students not to post their video assignments to YouTube. Under fair use, both actions are legal.

All manner of content and media is now available online, but fear and misinformation have kept teachers and students from using this valuable material, including portions of films, TV coverage, photos, songs, articles, and audio, in the classroom.

Now, thanks to a coordinated effort by the media literacy community, supported by experts at American University and Temple University, teachers and students have a guide that simplifies the legalities of using copyrighted materials in an academic setting: The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education.

The code, which will be released on Tuesday, November 11, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, was developed by the National Association for Media Literacy Education, the Action Coalition for Media Education, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Visual Communication Studies Division of the International Communication Association, and the Media Education Foundation.  The code was facilitated by Peter Jaszi and Patricia Aufderheide of American University, and Renee Hobbs of Temple University.

Educators use copyrighted materials from mass media and popular culture in building students’ critical thinking and communication skills. For example, a teacher might have a class analyze a website or a television ad to identify purpose, point of view, and source credibility. With the rise of digital media tools for learning and sharing, it is more important than ever for educators to understand copyright and fair use.

Fair use, a long-standing doctrine that was specifically written into Sec. 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976, allows the use of copyrighted material without permission or payment when the benefit to society outweighs the cost to the copyright owner.

“The fair-use doctrine was designed to help teachers and learners, among others,” said Peter Jaszi, director of the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property at American University’s Washington College of Law. “It's one of the best copyright tools teachers have.” 

“Finally, copyright confusion among educators will be a thing of the past,” said Hobbs, founder of Temple University’s Media Education Lab and professor of broadcasting, telecommunications and mass media at the university’s School of Communications and Theater. “In an increasingly copyrighted world, the code of best practices clarifies copyright and fair use for educators and students.”

The code, which outlines basic principles for the application of fair use to media literacy education, articulates related limitations, and examines common myths about copyright and education, is a follow-up to a 2007 report, The Cost of Copyright Confusion for Media Literacy.  The report found that teachers’ lack of copyright understanding impairs the teaching of critical thinking and communication skills. Too many teachers, the report found, react by feigning ignorance, quietly defying the rules, or vigilantly complying.
The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education outlines five principles, each with limitations:

Educators can, under some circumstances:
1. Make copies of newspaper articles, TV shows, and other copyrighted works, and use them and keep them for educational use.
2. Create curriculum materials and scholarship with copyrighted materials embedded.
3. Share, sell, and distribute curriculum materials with copyrighted materials embedded.

Learners can, under some circumstances:
4. Use copyrighted works in creating new material.
5. Distribute their works digitally if they meet the transformativeness standard.

As part of the project, American University’s Center for Social Media produced a video to help teachers and students understand how they can use copyrighted materials. The code, video, and other curriculum materials for educators will be available at, and

Media interested in receiving an embargoed (November 11) copy of the report, contact Micael Bogar at the Center for Social Media,  Although the full video will not be available for viewing until November 11, preview/teaser clips are online and ready for viewing.  

“The best practices approach has worked superbly for other creative communities, such as documentary filmmakers,” said Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media, part of AU’s School of Communication. “The code will empower educators to work as creatively as they want to, with a much better understanding of their rights under the law.”

This project was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, with additional funding from the Ford Foundation.