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Understanding Copyright

Copyright Law

The full text of US Copyright law - known as Title 17 - is available online from the US Copyright Office. Highlighted here are parts of the law that commonly relate to higher education.

Classroom Use Exemption

The Classroom Use Exemption is found in section 110(1) of US copyright law. This exemption allows for the performance and display of works in class for educational purposes.  Performing plays or showing films in class fall under the 110(1) Exemption.  However, for this exemption to apply, you must meet certain requirements. 

The requirements are:

  • You must be in a physical classroom or instruction space.
  • You must be there in person.
  • It must be a nonprofit educational institution.
  • The copy of the work being used must be legal.  For example, this exemption doesn't apply if you're showing a pirated movie in class.

Making copies of work for your class does not fall under this exemption.  Performance and display of works in an online environment are not covered under this exemption either.  For online environments, look at the TEACH Act.

Portions of this section are adapted from "Exceptions and Limitations" from University of MN Copyright Services (CC-BY-NC 3.0)


The TEACH Act of 2002 updated section 110(2) of copyright law, and it was designed for online learning environments.  The act tries to extend the rights of a physical classroom to an online classroom, although there are many more limitations to the TEACH Act than the Classroom Exemption.

The TEACH Act allows:

  • Transmitting performances of an entire non-dramatic literary or musical work.
    • Non-dramatic literary works exclude audiovisual works; examples of permitted performances in this category might include poetry or short story reading.
    • Non-dramatic musical works would include all music other than opera, music videos (because they are audiovisual), and musicals.
  • Transmitting reasonable and limited portions of any other performance.
    • This category includes all audiovisual works such as films and videos of all types, and any dramatic musical works excluded above.
  • Transmitting displays of any work in amounts comparable to typical face-to-face displays.
    • This would include still images of all kinds.

22 conditions that must be met for the TEACH Act to apply.  Some conditions are for the university, such as being a nonprofit accredited institution.  Other conditions are at the classroom level, such as limiting access to the students enrolled in the class.  Using an LMS like Canvas can help meet some of these conditions.

To see if your use meets all of the conditions, see the basic TEACH Act checklist.

Section 110(2) can be useful, and is designed for educators to have more rights in an online classroom.  However it is very limited, and fair use can still be relied on when section 110(2) does not meet your needs.

Portions of this section are adapted from "Copyright Crash Course: TEACH Act" from University of Texas Libraries (CC-BY-NC 2.0)


The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed in 1998, and attempted to address some of the copyright difficulties caused by the internet and new technology.  There are two sections of the DMCA that commonly impact users: the anti-circumvention provisions, and the safe harbor for service providers.

  • Anti-circumvention: Some technology comes with anti-piracy protections such as DRM or other copy and access restrictions.  The DMCA banned users from breaking these protections, or going around them, even if their intended use was legal under Fair Use or other exemptions.
  • Safe Harbor: The DMCA protects websites and service providers - like Youtube or Google - from possible copyright infringement from their users.  This protection includes a requirement for websites to take down content if a possible copyright violation is reported.  Users have a window of time where they can challenge the take down, and get their content restored.