Copyright Law: The TEACH Act

By Peter Connor

Online/Distance Education Exemption

The Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act of 2002 (H.R. 22157)—commonly referred to as the TEACH Act—revised Title 17 of the United States Code providing a much needed technology update.

It added a distance education exemption for "mediated instructional activities transmitted via digital networks" alongside existing Classroom Teaching and Fair Use exemptions governing the use of copyright-protected materials.

The act defines the course material parameters and conditions, as defined by Section 110(2), under which the display and performance of copyrighted-protected materials may be legally transmitted over digital networks.

Course Material Parameters

To a large extent, the TEACH Act leveled the playing field between physical classrooms and online, distance learning environments. Defined under its provisions are the terms and conditions under which educators in U.S. accredited, nonprofit educational institutions may, without seeking copyright holder permission, digitally use and transmit copyright-protected intellectual property belonging to another.

What’s Allowed: Providing that the applicable teaching and technology stipulations listed further down this page are satisfactorily met, the "distance education" exemption permits the digital transmission of the following course materials:

Displays: Copyright-protected materials that one would normally expect to see displayed in any physical classroom—including still images—may be transmitted digitally.

Performances: Entire performances of non-dramatic literary and musical works—excluding audiovisual works—may be transmitted digitally under the same exemption governing displays. Key word: Non-Dramatic.

All other works—including dramatic literary and musical works, audiovisual and sound recordings—may be digitally transmitted in "reasonable" but "limited" amounts.

What’s Not Allowed: Copyright-protected materials specifically prohibited from digital transmission by the distance education exemption are as follows:

  • Materials such as instructional E-books or CD’s that were designed and marketed specifically as a consumable product for interactive or online educational purposes.
  • Materials normally considered as consumable products—like textbooks and courseware packs—designed specifically to be purchased by students in fulfillment of a class requirement.
  • Supplemental reading and research material—in any media format—not specifically required by the course instructor.
  • Illegally obtained copies of any copyright-protected material.

Teaching Stipulations

Digitally transmitted materials must meet the following teaching stipulations for the distance education exemption to apply.

  • The selected material must be comparable to and not exceed that which meets the normal expectation of teaching materials that would be found in use in a physical classroom.
  • The selected material must be fundamentally related to the intended teaching content for which the course is designed to cover.
  • The selected material must be a necessary component of the class session in which they are displayed and/or performed.
  • The selected material must be displayed and/or performed under the direct supervision of the instructor or an assigned GTA.
  • The class in which the selected material is displayed and/or performed must be officially sanctioned by the educational institution.

Technology Stipulations

Along with meeting the teaching stipulations mentioned above, certain technology conditions must be met as well.

  • Analog versions may be digitized when—and only when—digital versions are unavailable. In addition, such versions must adhere to the “reasonable but limited” rule and be restricted to that necessary to accomplish the teaching goal.
  • Access to digitally transmitted materials must be restricted to those students officially enrolled in the class in which they are presented and available only during the class session(s) for which they were designed.
  • Adequate notification that digitally transmitted material covered under the Distance Education exemption is otherwise subject to standard copyright law must be prominently displayed in the transmission itself.
  • Reasonable technology safeguards blocking the retention and redistribution of material digitally transmitted for legally sanctioned educational purposes must be installed wherever and whenever possible.

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