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Copyright Basics  

An overview of basic information about U.S. Copyright Law for Gallaudet University students, faculty, and staff.
Last Updated: Jun 2, 2017 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Online Education

While the basic principles of copyright law apply regardless of the format or method of delivery, some areas of copyright compliance in educational settings deserve special attention. One of those areas is online education. Some of the traditional copyright exemptions that apply for educational purposes apply only in the context of "face-to-face" teaching. Section 110 of Title 17, the US Code (the copyright law) allows instructors to display or "perform" works for educational purposes. Videorecordings are protected by copyright. Standard DVDs sold through vendors like are sold "for home use" only. They may not be played as part of a public performance. "Public performance" is defined very narrowly as a group of people watching a video in any setting outside of one's home. But Section 110 allows instructors to show videos to groups of students as long as that viewing takes place "face-to-face" in a classroom. 

For many years that "face-to-face" requirement was easily met because most all teaching took place "face-to-face" in a classroom. The requirement became a problem, however, when institutions and instructors began teaching courses online. The TEACH Act was passed to provide instructors with a legal means of viewing resource materials in online classes. See the "TEACH Act" box in this section of the Guide for detailed information.

Click links below for additional information:



In 2002 Congress passed the Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization Act. Known as the TEACH Act, it provides for legal performance and display of some resources in online education. This change was needed because previous laws allowed the reproduction of copyrighted materials for educational purposes only in the context of "face-to-face" teaching. 

The TEACH Act is not a blanket exemption that allows any and all reproduction for online instruction. There are specific requirements that must be met if an instructor wishes to take advantage of the provisions of the TEACH act. Those requirements are:

  • the institution must be an accredited, non-profit educational institution
  • the institution must have copyright policies and must post a copyright notice on online course materials
  • the institution must have technological measures in place to support compliance with TEACH Act requirements
  • the copyrighted material used must be for a "mediated instructional activity "
  • access to the copyrighted material must be limited to students enrolled in the class
  • the material must be used in live or asynchronous class sessions
  • the material may not include textbook materials "typically acquired or purchased by students"
  • only "reasonable portions" of the original work may be used ("reasonable portions" is usually defined as the amount used in a typical face-to-face class session)

So what does all this mean? Basically it means that it is possible to reproduce some copyrighted material for use in an online course. But the TEACH Act does not give instructors blanket permission to reproduce anything they want on Blackboard. All the requirements above must be met before reproduction is permitted based on the TEACH Act. 

Online education has changed dramatically since the TEACH Act was passed, and many consider the TEACH Act overly restrictive. It is important to remember that Fair Use applies to online education as well as face-to-face settings.



    Many instructors ask about the feasibility of making video available to students in online classes. It is permissible to stream video for a course via Blackboard as long as the standards for Fair Use are met. The question most commonly asked about streaming video is "How much of the video may be streamed?" Section 110(2) of the Copyright Act says "display of work in an amount comparable to typical classroom setting." What does that mean? 

    There are no formal/official guidelines that provide suggested time limits. But one important restriction in the law can be a guide. It specifies that the amount of material displayed or produced must be analogous to what would be displayed in a face-to-face class session. That means a full-length feature film probably cannot be streamed. But brief clips can be.



    These resources will help you learn more about copyright in online education.

    The Institute for Learning and Teaching at Colorado State University has a TEACH checklist that is very helpful.

    The University of Texas Copyright Crash Course has a good section on the Teach Act that includes a Teach Act checklist.

    The American Library Association's The Teach Act and Some Frequently Asked Questions covers highlights of the law.



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