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Curriculum Resources

Recommended sites for teachers creating lesson plans, plus information about copyright and fair use

Copyright and Fair Use for Educators

Copyright. Say it and most people immediately get bored, intimidated, or vaguely annoyed. This guide provides a few key definitions and suggestions to help you feel more confident in your understanding of copyright and your right to make fair use of original content.


In general, the sanest approach to the potential headaches of copyright is to shift your mindset: rather than ignore it completely or become overly cautious, do what you can to make your intended use more fair, according to the fair use criteria below.



Copyright is a form of intellectual property law. It protects original works of authorship from the moment they are created in a tangible form of expression. It covers what we think of as artistic work, like poetry, novels, songs, photographs, and movies, but also many other kinds of original content, like instructional videos, software, even curriculum and lesson plans.


Crediting, Citing, and Plagiarism

The practice of crediting sources (as is done in journalism) or fully citing sources (as in academic practice) is about ethical use, not legal use. Therefore, while it’s important to do, just “citing a source” does not serve as legal permission to use it. On the other hand, if your use of a source constitutes “fair use” (see below), but you do not attribute it to the author via citing or crediting, then you are plagiarizing. When you credit vs. when you cite depends on context, though keep in mind the purpose of crediting is simply to acknowledge the author or creator, while citing is intended to provide readers and viewers with the information necessary to find the original source.


Creative Commons

Creative Commons is an organization that gives creators a way to communicate their preferences about how their work be used, often in more flexible and permissive ways than standard copyright. In addition, it also provides several ways to search for media created to be shared and adapted. Using these types of materials will make your life much easier, since the creator has given permission for their work to be shared via specific licenses.


Free Use

Materials in the public domain are "free" to use. You are not constrained by copyright law, though you may still want to cite or credit sources for other reasons, such as to meet and model academic standards. As noted above, work created with certain types of creative commons licenses may also allow you to copy, adapt, and publish on the web without attribution or worry about copyright violation.


Fair Use

"For educational purposes" is not synonymous with fair use. The use of a work is actually only one of four factors that needs to be considered to make a case for fair use. To meet the fair use exception to US Copyright law, the intended use must be weighed against all four criteria:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work. What does this mean? As Trinity’s copyright guide states, “Non-commercial or fact-based works (informational) are more often used fairly than creative works (entertainment).”
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

This article provides a good explanation of fair use specifically in an educational context, and here is list of sample scenarios that can help illuminate what is fair use and what isn't in teaching. This website also has a number of great, 5-min videos about fair use, both for teachers and students.



Specifically, linking vs copying. Remember that copyright law is about making actual copies. Although this gets murky in a digital world, linking to resources is generally not understood to be the same as making copies. Thus linking to work that may be copyrighted is a safer bet.



The question of audience—who will benefit from your use of someone else’s work--is a big one. What you can do in your own classroom is different than what you can do if you plan to publish your lesson on the internet for anyone to access. For example, providing a pdf of someone else’s article to a class of 4th-graders will have much less effect on the market than posting the same pdf online for anyone to download. Therefore the former is more likely to be fair use, the latter, less so.


Source Origin

Just because something is on the web doesn't mean it's there legally or ethically. So if you find a picture on pinterest, for instance, make an effort to track down the original so you can use it legally (weigh fair use criteria) as well as ethically (citing or credit it properly).