Copyright & fair use in education

When teaching online or in a face-to-face classroom setting, teachers need to be mindful of copyright and fair use of the materials that they are using. It is a common misconception that materials such as text, visual and audio representations when used for educational purposes, are exempt from copyright and fair use laws.


When teaching in the UK, there are several pieces of essential guidance from the Government which should help educators to navigate this sometimes murky waters of copyright and fair use.


There are exceptions to standard copyright and fair use laws that teachers are able to work within. One of the most important exceptions for education allows the use of any type of work for the purpose of teaching (or as the law puts it: ‘for the sole purpose of illustration for instruction’). This means that copyright in the work is not infringed by an individual teacher or a student as long as they are copying the work to give or receive instruction (or when preparing to give or receive instruction), and the copying is used to illustrate a point about the subject being taught. Also, the law makes clear that ‘giving or receiving instruction’ allows copying when setting examination questions, communicating questions to students, and answering questions.


However, the exception only applies under the following conditions:


1) The purpose of the use is non-commercial

2) Where practical, there should be sufficient acknowledgement of authorship of the work

3) The use of the material is fair


There is no legal definition of what is fair or unfair in this context. It is an issue ultimately decided by courts depending on a number of factors, such as the amount of the work taken and whether the use would commercially compete with the copyright owner’s exploitation of the material. According to the UK government ‘minor uses, such as displaying a few lines of poetry on an interactive whiteboard, will be permitted, but uses which would undermine sales of teaching materials will still need a licence’.


There are several key pieces of information that educators in the UK need to be aware of when using work that they did not author or create. The following list highlights the situations when copyright works are allowed to be used for educational purposes, such as:


  • The copying of works in any medium as long as the use is solely to illustrate a point, it is not done for commercial purposes, it is accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement, and the use is fair dealing. This means minor uses, such as displaying a few lines of poetry on an interactive whiteboard, are permitted, but uses which would undermine sales of teaching materials are not.


  • Performing, playing or showing copyright works in a school, university or other educational establishment for educational purposes. However, it only applies if the audience is limited to teachers, pupils and others directly connected with the activities of the establishment. It will not generally apply if parents are in the audience. Examples of this are showing a video for English or drama lessons and the teaching of music. It is unlikely to include the playing of a video during a wet playtime purely to amuse the children.


  • Recording a TV programme or radio broadcast for non-commercial educational purposes in an educational establishment, provided there is no licensing scheme in place. Generally, a licence will be required from the Educational Recording Agency).


  • Making copies by using a photocopier, or similar device on behalf of an educational establishment for the purpose of non-commercial instruction, provided that there is no licensing scheme in place. Generally, a licence will be required from the Copyright Licensing Agency.


The following video created by The University of Glasgow Library offers a comprehensive overview of copyright and fair use, including exceptions. The video has been made available under a Creative Commons License (Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)) which permits sharing (copying and redistribution of the material in any medium or format) and adaptation (remixing, transformation and building upon the material for any purpose, even commercial).



Further detail can be found via the UK Government website here and the Scottish Government here.

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