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Defines copyright and Fair Use; find Fair Use evaluators, information on Creative Commons.

Copyright and Teaching

Using copyrighted materials for teaching can be complicated. In some situations, an exceptions for educational use may apply, but in other cases you may need permission from the copyright holder. 

Three major exceptions to copyright law commonly used by educators:

  1. Section 110 Copyright Law - Face-to-face instruction
  2. TEACH ACT - Distance learning
  3. Section 107 Copyright Law - Fair use

Exceptions allow for the use of a work without requesting permission from the copyright holder and potentially paying fees.

  • If the use does not qualify for face-to-face or virtual instruction exceptions, then fair use is generally utilized because it is much broader and more flexible.
  • It is the responsibility of the individual who is using the work to decide which exception is applicable.
  • It should be a conscious decision made with good faith. 
  • A good faith determination means that the individual must understand the exception they are selecting, be able to articulate it, and be able to reasonably apply it to their specific situation.
  • If none of the exceptions are applicable, then permission should be requested for the use of the work. 
  • When in doubt, contact USC Office of General Counsel

Face-to Face Exception

Section 110 U.S. Copyright Law: Teachers and students at nonprofit educational institutions have certain rights to publicly display and perform copyrighted works in the traditional face-to-face classroom. Applied to very limited situations.


  1. All materials (e.g. video, images, printed word, music, etc.) must be legally acquired.
  2. Teaching activities must take place in-person in a classroom or a similar place devoted to instruction.
  3. Be at a nonprofit educational institution.


The TEACH Act gives certain permissions to non-profit educational institutions for using copyrighted works in the classroom without permission from the rights holder. The TEACH Act is complicated with many restrictions, so assess with care. 

The TEACH Act states that a copyrighted work may be displayed to a distance education course without consultation with the rights holder if: 

  1. The use of the work is an integral part of the class session
  2. The work is available only to students of the class
  3. The work is only available for the duration of a class session or course
  4. A reasonable effort is made to instruct students against unlawful redistribution of the work
  5. Digital copies of the work are only made if the content is not otherwise digitally available

What is Fair Use?

Section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law allows for some uses of portions of copyrighted works for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. 

Determining Fair Use is done on a case-by-case basis according to the Four Factors of Fair Use:  

  1. Purpose of use
  2. Nature of the original work
  3. Amount or portion used
  4. Effect of the use on potential market/value of the work

Each of these factors must be considered and balanced with the others to gain an overall picture of your intended use and to help you reach an informed decision. 

Fair Use Evaluators

These are interactive Fair Use evaluators that may help inform your decision to use copyrighted works.


“The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.”   – U.S. Copyright Office