Copyright Law: Classroom Exemptions

By Peter Connor

The Basics

Instructors and students of U.S. accredited nonprofit educational institutions may—in compliance with certain stipulations—use, display and/or perform in a classroom environment any copyright-protected material or work without seeking the copyright holder permission normally required under U.S. copyright law—Title 17 of the United States Code.

Classroom Teaching Stipulations

The stipulations governing the display and performance of copyright-protected material in the classroom are few, but important.

  • The copy-right protected materials must be legally obtained.
  • The intent and purpose of their in-class use must be strictly educational.
  • Distribution must be in a location designated primarily for educational purposes.
  • Both teaching and learning must be occurring simultaneously.

It is the individual responsibility of every instructor at Colorado State University—in compliance with federal law—to make good faith determinations regarding copyright-protected materials used in class and be able to argue credibly in support of those determinations.

Displays and performances falling outside the qualifying stipulations may very well fall within the Fair Use guidelines; however, each should be carefully scrutinized for compliance with Section 107 before proceeding. For assistance please consult our Four-Point Fair Use Chart.

Exempted Copyright-Protected Materials

Under the classroom teaching exemption, all types of the following copyright-protected materials may be displayed and/or performed in the normal classroom environment. The stipulation being that the intent is for educational—not entertainment—purposes.

Printed Materials: Book chapters as well as newspaper, magazine and academic journal articles may, in most every instance be copied and handed out in class, the exception being consumables. In other words, copies of whole textbooks—handed out chapter-by-chapter in successive classroom sessions—standardized workbooks and/or test materials, etc. intended for commercial distribution and individual purchase may—under no circumstances—be copied and given to students as a hand-out.

Musical Reproduction: Audio recordings of musical performances may be played in class in most every instance. An exception, for instance, would be playing background music in a classroom—i.e. elevator music. Such use does not have a teaching and/or learning component and would infringe upon the rights of the copyright holder.

Still Images: Visual images—or stills—as they are commonly referred to, including photos, graphs, charts, diagrams, maps, slideshows, PowerPoints, etc. may be shown in the classroom in most every instance.

Audiovisual Materials: Segments of TV shows, documentary films and movies, etc., illustrative of, or related to, course content are allowed in most every instance.

Note: For a more comprehensive guide on Copyright Law exemptions for education, please see Copyright Essentials for Educators, a TILT Teaching Guide


Peter Connor - TILT Web Content Writer and Editor