Copyright laws apply to many instructional materials used in distance education, online courses, or web instructional materials just as they do when similar materials are used in a traditional in-person classroom setting. The U.S. Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. Sections 101-810 is the federal legislation established by Congress to protect the "writings" of authors. "Writings" may mean text, video, music, images, motion pictures, and/or computer software. Copyright law, in essence, gives the owner the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, or license his or her work. It also gives the owner exclusive rights to produce or license derivatives of his or her work.

There are limited exceptions to this right of exclusivity that are very important for educators because they give you the ability to use “writings” to demonstrate, illustrate, explain, teach. Exceptions for classroom and distance education are similar but not absolutely the same. You need to be familiar with the exceptions that apply to distance education as well as to online instructional materials as you develop and teach distance courses or use online instructional materials. Following appropriate guidelines will protect you and your institution as well as the copyright holder.

In May 2007 The University of Nebraska released Executive Memorandum #16 on Copyright Law and Compliance. Copyright Law and Compliance PDF requires that all material displayed under the TEACH Act must contain the following notice:

This Memorandum sets forth basic legal requirements under the copyright laws of the United States with the expectation that the members of the University community will acquaint themselves with these requirements and conduct themselves accordingly. The following sections of this Memorandum discuss basic copyright principles, public domain, fair use, face-to-face teaching activities, distance education and the TEACH Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and peer-to-peer file sharing.

When you wish to use works authored by others in a distance course, you must meet one or more of the following requirements.

Public Domain

A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright and which may be freely used by everyone. The reasons that the work is not protected include:

  1. the term of copyright for the work has expired
  2. the author failed to satisfy statutory formalities to perfect the copyright
  3. the work is a work of the U.S. Government
Dates of publication and/or registration are important when determining if a work is in public domain:
Date Status
Published before 1923 In the public domain.
Published from 1923 - 1963 If published without notice or not renewed, work is in the public domain.
Published from 1964 -1977 If published without notice, work is in the public domain.
Published 1978 or after No notice required, not in public domain unless specific permission is given.

Fair Use Guidelines

Fair use is more likely to exist where:

  • The use is educational, not commercial
  • The work is factual, requiring little imagination
  • A modest portion of the work is used
  • The work is distributed only to students in one class
  • The work is used only once or use is limited
  • The amount of the work used will have little impact on the market for that work
  • The purpose of the use is solely educational instruction or research
  • There is not an efficient or affordable permissions option available

The TEACH Act and Classroom Exemptions

The TEACH Act of 2002 moved some of the classroom exemptions allowed under the 1976 Copyright Act into the distance learning and online instructional materials environment.

Distance education as defined by the law “must occur in discrete installments, within a confined span of time, integrate into a 'lecture like' whole, and resemble traditional classroom sessions.” Most of these requirements were left deliberately undefined so that the law could be as future oriented as possible.

The TEACH Act allows educators at accredited, non-profit educational institutions to copy and transmit portions of copyrighted works over distance learning networks without the permission of the copyright owner or the payment of royalties provided certain conditions are met.

  • Must be legally acquired
  • Must be used under the supervision or direction of an instructor as an integral part of a class session
  • Must be available only to students officially enrolled in the course
  • Can only be kept so long as reasonably necessary to complete the transmission
  • To the extent feasible, the school must implement measures to reasonably prevent unauthorized access to and dissemination of the work
  • The institution must institute policies regarding copyright and must educate its staff
  • Allows for works only available in analog form to be digitized without owner consent, so long as only relevant portions (not entire work) are copied
  • There is an absolute barrier to any circumvention of copy-protected or encrypted works or those created primarily for educational purposes, even if the underlying use would otherwise be characterized as a fair use or fit into an educational/classroom use allowance

The University of Nebraska Executive Memorandum #16 on Copyright Law and Compliance. Copyright Law and Compliance PDF requires that all material displayed under the TEACH Act must contain the following notice:

The materials on this course website are only for the use of students enrolled in this course for purposes associated with this course and may not be retained or further disseminated. The materials on this course website may be protected by copyright, and any further use of this material may be in violation of federal copyright law.”

A good resource on the requirements of the TEACH Act and its impact on distance education was developed by Ohio State University “Navigating the TEACH Act in Distance Education

Every three years the Librarian of Congress is required by Section 1201(a)(1) of the copyright law to determine whether there are any classes of works that will be subject to exemptions from the statute's prohibition against circumvention of technology that effectively controls access to a copyrighted work. In October 2015, the Librarian of Congress designated number of classes of work for which “persons who circumvent access controls in order to engage in non-infringing uses of works in these classes will not be subject to the statutory prohibition against circumvention.”


The maintenance of academic honesty is a vital concern of the university community. Any student found guilty of academic dishonesty shall be subject to both academic and disciplinary sanctions. Article III, Section B.1 of the University's Student Code of Conduct references the following as examples of academic dishonesty:

  • Cheating
  • Fabrication and Falsification
  • Plagiarism
  • Abuse of Academic Materials
  • Complicity in Academic Dishonesty
  • Falsifying Grade Reports
  • Misrepresentation to Avoid Academic Work
  • Other

For the most current definition of academic dishonesty see the Undergraduate or Graduate Studies Catalog for complete text and/or your college’s policy website.


You might find the article “Plagiarism: What It Is and How to Recognize and Avoid It” (Indiana University Writing Tutorial Services) a helpful resource for you and your students.

One place to include not only a reference to the academic dishonesty policy of the university but also an explanation of how you will handle situations in your class is in your syllabus.

The Faculty Senate Syllabus Policy goes into more detail about what should be in the syllabus as does the Graduate Studies’ Online Guide for TAs.