Copyright Law in the Educational Setting

With Additional Consideration of Issues Related to Distance Learning, Multimedia, and Web Development

This information is provided to assist members of the UNC Charlotte community by summarizing basic copyright laws, especially as they relate to distance learning, multimedia, and web development, and is not intended as legal advice. Please seek legal counsel to obtain specific legal advice.

On this page:

Dual Roles of Multimedia & Web Developers

Copyright User:

  • You have the responsibility to ensure that you have rights to use all copyrighted works you incorporate into your own materials.

Copyright Owner:

  • You should ensure proper protection of your own rights in the original works you create.

What is Copyright Protection?

The Copyright Act provides a bundle of rights that protect the owner’s expression of original ideas created and fixed in a tangible medium.

The Act does NOT protect the facts contained within the work or the ideas themselves.

Duration of your copyright protection if created after 1/1/78 = life of author + 70 years.

What Are the Owner’s Rights?

Copyright protects the owner’s exclusive rights to . . .

  • reproduce
  • prepare derivative works
  • distribute/sell
  • display
  • perform
  • license

. . . an original or derivative work created and fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

What Can Be Copyrighted?

  • literary works
  • musical works
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

. . . including web pages and multimedia works and their incorporated materials, such as lecture notes, course materials, outlines, papers, assignments, practice problems, forms, etc.

Who Owns the Copyright?

A copyright owner is usually any author who contributes original expression to a work.

Under current University policy, ownership of copyrighted works created by University employees depends on the nature of the work and the category of employment. 

Faculty and EPA non-faculty employees who create “Traditional Works or Non-Directed Works” shall own the work unless it is a “Traditional Work or Non-Directed Work Involving Exceptional Use of University Resources,” a “Directed Work,” a “Sponsored or Externally Contracted Work,” or a “Work for Hire” (as those terms are defined in the policy).

  • The University shall own Traditional Works or Non-Directed Works Involving Exceptional Use of University Resources.
  • The University shall own copyright in Directed Works. 
  • Unless the agreement expressly requires copyright ownership by the University or conveyance of rights to a third party, the creator of a Sponsored or Externally Contracted Work shall own the work. 
  • The University shall own Works for Hire by SPA staff.
  • The University shall own copyrighted works produced by the independent contractor.
  • Students retain ownership of copyright in their Student Works.

See UNC Charlotte University Policy 315, Copyright Policy.

Obtaining Copyright

Copyright is automatic when the work is first written down, recorded, painted, entered into a computer’s memory, or fixed in any medium.

Advisable, but not required, to affix prominent notice: copyright symbol ("©," (c),"or "Copr."), date of first publication, and owner’s name.

Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not required, but gives you the ability to sue and claim statutory damages for infringement.

Liability for Infringement

An individual is generally liable for his or her own violation of another’s copyright.

However, the University may be held vicariously liable for infringement by an employee or student if it has the right and ability to supervise the infringing action and has an obvious and direct financial interest in the exploitation of the copyrighted material.

Infringement may result in civil damages or even criminal penalties.

Proper Use of Copyrighted Material

You may use copyrighted material only under one of the following circumstances:

  • Fair Use - Allows certain use of copyrighted materials without permission
  • Permission - Requires written authorization from owner
  • License - Requires entering into a license agreement with the copyright holder
  • Assignment - Transfer of intellectual property rights in a particular work

Fair Use, Permission, License, or Assignment?

  1. First, determine if your use of the material is "fair use" by doing a "four-factor analysis"
  2. If the use exceeds "fair use," secure the copyright owner’s permission.
  3. If the work is digital information subject to a license, enter into a license agreement under terms that allow your intended use (e.g. multimedia or distance learning).
  4. You may be able to obtain a transfer of all rights in the work by way of an assignment.

I. Fair Use Four Factor Analysis

You may apply the "Fair Use Guidelines for Educational Multimedia" to determine whether your anticipated use might be "fair use."

Four factors must be weighed to determine if the "fair use" exception applies:

  1. Purpose and character of the use - a use is more likely to be interpreted as "fair use" if it is:
  • transformative (significant value added)
  • for nonprofit educational purposes

NOTE: Teaching, scholarship, or research may meet this first factor, but other factors must still be considered!

  1. Nature of the copyrighted work - a use is more likely to be interpreted as "fair use" if the nature of the material is:
  • published
  • factual
  1. Amount and substantiality of the portion used - a use is more likely to be interpreted as "fair use" if the amount of the material used is:
  • a small amount in relation to total work
  • of minimal qualitative substance
  1. Market effect of the use of the copyrighted work - a use is more likely to be interpreted as "fair use" if it:
  • has a minimal market effect
  • is not widely distributed (e.g., beyond classroom use, or on the Internet)

II. Permission

If your intended use exceeds the rights allowed under the "fair use" exception to the copyright laws, you might obtain permission by:

  1. Identifying and contacting the owner, publisher, or collective rights organization; and
  2. Submitting a detailed written request, including:
  • method(s) of anticipated use (e.g., copy, quote, digital incorporation)
  • purpose(s) of anticipated use (e.g., educational multimedia, web page)
  • scope of distribution or publication (e.g., to limited audience vs. widely on the Internet)

III. License

  • Digital information is often subject to a license.
  • A license gives a licensee limited permission to access and use the information only under the terms and conditions of the license agreement.
  • A software license is often an "End-User License," which accompanies a computer system and restricts rights to installation and use on that computer only.
  • You may try to negotiate terms of a license to allow all of your anticipated uses of the work by contacting the licensing agent.

IV. Assignment

  • An assignment is a transfer of all or part of the intellectual property rights in a particular work. [Sample copyright assignment]
  • The assignee becomes the owner of specified rights in the work with or without limitations.
  • An assignment of rights might be most appropriate in collaborative works, in which there are a number of contributors.

Special Considerations in Distance Learning

  • Under the Copyright Act, instructional "display" or "performance" in the nonprofit educational context is permitted if it takes place or is transmitted in the classroom:
  • Permissible display: may include the simple showing of a photograph, chart, table, or still from a motion picture
  • Permissible performance: may recite, play, or show a musical or literary work, but NOT dramatic works, videos, audiovisual works, or motion pictures
  • If the work is transmitted for distance learning (outside the classroom), or is copied or distributed, including posting it on the Internet, it is most likely NOT "fair use," and you will have to obtain appropriate permission(s).

Special Considerations in Multimedia & Web Development

If you incorporate graphics, film, video, music, photographs, animation, text, data, maps, or software you may implicate multiple copyrights and multiple owners or contributors--

  • Be sure to get permission or license from owners and obtain written agreements or assignments from contributors.

Remember to protect your own copyright--

  • If posted online, understand that you give an implied license to allow minimal printing, copying, and downloading.
  • Affix notice (name, date, and ©) OR register with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • Include a prominent instruction not to copy, download, distribute, etc., unless you do not care to protect your copyright.

Coypright Law Links and Resources