Module 6. Brief History of Copyright

This module provides a brief overview of copyright and requires learners to create usable definitions for a number of key terms related to copyright.

You just need a little lesson on copyright.


Watch these videos on the origins and current state of copyright law.

As you watch these vidoes, consider:

  • What is the purpose of copyright law?
  • How do current interpretations of copyright law either support or subvert its original purposes?
  • How should copyright law counterbalance benefitting the creator and benefitting society?
"So what if every kindergartner's macaroni artwork is protected by copyright for 175 years? Why does it matter?" - CGP Grey

Notice: This video contains mild language that some viewers may find offensive.

Since the 19th century, "copyright laws have always been behind what's happening in technology." - Russell Rains

Fair Use

Fair use is an exception or limitation to copyright law that allows you to use some copyrighted materials in particular circumstances without the copyright holder's permission. Specifically, if used for nonprofit educational purposes, some copyrighted materials may be used for teaching, but your use 1) should directly relate to your educational goals, 2) should only utilize a relatively small portion of the work, and 3) should not negatively impact the copyright holder's ability to profit from the work.

Quoting, for instance, is an example of fair use. You can quote an author in a paper you are writing only because of the fair use clause in copyright law. Consider this quote:

All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. - J. R. R. Tolkien

Without fair use, the inclusion of this quote would be a copyright violation, because I did not seek J. R. R. Tolkien's estate's prior consent to make a copy of this text from his book The Fellowship of the Ring and to distribute it on this website. However, my use in this case is a transformative use and is only large enough to make the educational point, so it is allowable. Would being able to read this quote on this website prevent someone from reading his book (thereby depriving the copyright owner of profits)? Certainly not.

On the contrary, however, if I were to provide several chapters of Tolkien's book online without prior permission from the copyright holder, then this would certainly be a copyright violation that could be acted upon. Similarly, copying another teacher's lesson plan, changing a few words, and posting it online would be a blatant copyright violation.

Fair use becomes problematic in education if you are trying to use educational works in your own creations (e.g., materials created specifically for education, such as lesson plans or textbook chapters) and/or you are using too much (such that it might prevent the owner of the copyright from profiting from the work). As you can probably surmise, however, this is quite subjective and requires significant forethought.


You can provide a web link to copyrighted material from your own materials without permission from the copyright holder. This is different from copying/pasting the copyright material into your own work, because it allows the copyright holder to maintain control of their content and to generate revenue through web traffic. The only exception to this rule would be if you provide a link to materials that should not be publicly accessible and, therefore, allow your users to bypass copyright holder restrictions to content.


In your own notes, create a workable definition for each of the following terms:

  • Copyright
  • Fair Use

Use the following resources to flesh out these definitions:

Common Questions

When is a work copyrighted?
As soon as it is created or published.
Does a work need to be published to be copyrighted?
No, though it must be in some physical form (e.g., manuscript, recording).
Does an author need to register their work in order for it to be copyrighted?
No. Authors may register their work with the US copyright office to protect against infringement, but even unregistered works are copyrighted.
Does fair use allow educators to ignore copyright?
No. Fair use allows for some use of copyrighted materials within certain guidelines of use.
If something is labeled with a copyright symbol (i.e. ©), does that mean it is copyrighted?
Probably, but the copyright might have expired.
If something is not labeled with a copyright symbol (i.e. ©), then is it copyrighted?
Maybe. Maybe not. The label has nothing to do with whether or not a work is copyrighted. The copyright label only serves to remind and to inform. If you see no label, you should assume that the work is copyrighted and look into the matter further.
Can I link to copyrighted materials?
In most cases, yes. Just be sure that you are linking to the resource as it is provided by the publisher (not uploaded to someone's personal server, etc.) and that your link does not bypass a copyright holder's login system.
Can I embed copyrighted materials into my presentation or website (e.g., YouTube videos)?
That depends on the terms of the license that the copyright holder has released the content under. Generally, if a site like YouTube gives you an embed script, then you are free to use it (provided that you do not change the script, remove attribution, etc.).

Learning Check

  1. Copyright only applies to works that are...
    1. used commercially
    2. in a visual or audio format
    3. used educationally
    4. [all of the above]
  2. Fair use...
    1. Allows educators to use anything they want however they want
    2. Allows anyone to use a small portion of a copyrighted work if it is for educational purposes
    3. Only applies to the first 10% of a work
    4. [All of the above]
  3. In the U.S., when does copyright begin?
    1. When the author was born.
    2. When the work was created.
    3. When the work was last published.
    4. After the author registers the copyright.
  4. In the U.S., when does copyright end?
    1. 28 years after the copyright began
    2. 28 years after the death of the author
    3. 50 years after the death of the author
    4. 70 years after the death of the author
  5. Copyright law...
    1. is always behind new advances in technology.
    2. plays nicely with new advances in technology.
    3. is always ahead of new advances in technology.
    4. has nothing to do with new advances in technology.

  1. d - Copyright applies to anyone using works that are susceptible to copyright law.
  2. b - Fair use can be applied to anyone using copyrighted materials for legitimate educational purposes but only covers a small portion of a work.
  3. b - All allowable works are copyrighted as soon as they are created, and no registration is necessary.
  4. d - Though this has changed over time, this is the current law.
  5. a - This is why the book, music, and movie industries have all had to rethink their approaches as the internet has emerged.


In this interview with legal expert Georgia Harper, we discuss copyright and open education.