Since its founding, the United States has protected the rights of creators to allow them to share and profit from their work as they see fit without the fear of others claiming ownership over their work. The Copyright Act of 1976 reinforced these protections, but it also included a provision (specifically, section 110) that allows instructors to use copyrighted works for nonprofit educational purposes in the classroom.

However, the extent of this provision became muddled once distance education and online education became more prolific. After all, there is no “classroom” in these education modalities, so can online instructors still legally share copyrighted works as part of teaching their students?

The Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act of 2002 sought to resolve this question. This act was meant to ensure that distance and online students at nonprofit, accredited institutions can enjoy the same benefits of exposure to copyright materials as face-to-face students, while still protecting the creators’ rights to their intellectual property.

The Provisions of the TEACH Act

The TEACH Act is not blanket permission for online instructors to use copyrighted works however they wish. Any use of copyrighted works still needs to fall under fair use guidelines; the TEACH Act just seeks to define how instructors should handle the display of copyrighted materials in the online classroom setting. For example, the TEACH Act does not permit the use of course packs or other materials that publishers produce specifically for individual student purchase, because this would deprive the copyright holder of income.

Below are the major requirements instructors must follow for their use to fall under the provision of the TEACH Act, along with examples of what’s permitted and not permitted according to each requirement. Regardless of permissibility, however, instructors are expected to properly attribute the original source of any copyrighted work.

Requirement Explanation What’s Permitted What’s Not Permitted
The use of the copyrighted work does not exceed what an instructor would be able to cover in a typical face-to-face classroom session. The TEACH Act doesn’t specify how long a class session is, so use your best judgment.
  • Sharing a single newspaper or journal article (such as you might read aloud together in a face-to-face class session)
  • Posting video clips from a movie
  • Uploading an infographic
  • Streaming an entire feature-length film
  • Including hundreds of images in a single PowerPoint presentation
  • Uploading multiple chapters from a book or multiple articles from a journal
The use of the copyrighted work is part of systematic mediated instructional activities. The use must be an integral part of the class session; in other words, the copyrighted work must relate to the learning objectives or other pertinent course goals. The use must also be directly and materially related to the teaching content, rather than being decorative in nature.
  • Showing a video that demonstrates a therapy technique in an exercise science class
  • Sharing an article about an oil spill in a module about environmental impact
  • Posting an image of a map from the 1770s in an American history course
  • Using copyrighted images as “decorations” or enhancements in a PowerPoint presentation (i.e., the images do not directly relate to course content)
  • Sharing an article about nurse management in a lesson on patient interview techniques (Although the article might be in the same general field, it’s not relevant to the current lesson.)
The use of the copyrighted work is under the instructor’s supervision. As in a face-to-face classroom, instructors should seek to oversee the use of copyrighted works by posting and discussing them in the online classroom space rather than private communication channels where the instructor cannot monitor what students do with the content.
  • Instructor and students posting copyrighted works appropriately within the LMS (e.g., on discussion forums)
  • Instructors overseeing assignments and group work that involve copyrighted work
  • E-mailing copyrighted works to students
  • Students using unofficial (i.e., non-university-approved) communication channels to share copyrighted works (e.g., for group work or assignments)
The copyrighted content is restricted to students currently enrolled in the class. Only students enrolled in the course should have access to copyrighted materials, and only for the duration of the course.
  • Removing access to copyrighted material once the class is complete
  • Allowing students to access the LMS only for the duration of their enrollment in the course
  • Password-protecting the LMS so only students enrolled in the course can access the material
  • Sending out copyrighted materials as “pre-work” before the course begins
  • Allowing students to access copyrighted materials after the last day of class
  • Posting materials on public social media groups
The instructor attempts to prevent students from making their own copies of the copyrighted work. If students download or make copies of a work, instructors no longer have control or supervision over the use of the work. Thus, instructors should seek to mitigate students’ ability to download copyrighted works from the course.
  • Embedding or streaming content on the LMS (rather than asking students to download images, videos, etc.)
  • Not allowing students to right-click or otherwise download or save works uploaded to the LMS
  • Posting an appropriate copyright disclaimer
  • E-mailing copies of copyrighted material to students
  • Encouraging students to download their own copies of an article, image, or video
The instructor provides a warning notifying the students that the work is copyrighted and they should not alter or distribute it. In addition to properly citing sources, instructors should post a disclaimer somewhere clearly visible to students telling them that they may not make additional copies or share the work with others.
  • Posting an appropriate copyright disclaimer
  • Not posting an appropriate copyright disclaimer

 

Conclusion

Although this article is not an exhaustive discussion of the TEACH Act or copyright law, these examples will hopefully serve as an illustrative guide on how to handle copyrighted materials in your online classroom.

References

American University Library. (2010). What faculty need to know about copyright for teaching. Retrieved from https://www.american.edu/library/documents/upload/Copyright_for_Teaching.pdf

Hoon, P. (2007). Using copyrighted works in your teaching FAQ: Questions faculty and teaching assistants need to ask themselves frequently. Retrieved from http://www.knowyourcopyrights.org/storage/documents/kycrfaq.pdf