172 Fair Use and Classroom Readings

Liza Long

Fair Use and Classroom Readings

By Liza Long

If you’re like me, you probably want to offer your students a wide variety of voices and perspectives through the readings you choose for classroom use. But how do you determine what you can and cannot use? If your students purchase a textbook that includes readings, there’s no question that you are complying with U.S. copyright laws through the use of these readings. But what about readings for teachers relying on open education resources?

First, a caveat: Just because it comes up in a Google search (perhaps with the search term “pdf” attached) does not automatically mean that you have the right to use a source in your classroom. Sources that are in the public domain (in the U.S., this designation applies to most things published at least 75 years ago*) are acceptable, but many of us try to focus on more current topics and rhetorical techniques when we teach first-year writing.

There are a variety of approaches to consider when choosing readings that comply with U.S. copyright law.

  • Is the reading available to all students through your college library? I often partner with our librarians to find appropriate and available readings for my rhetoric and composition students. Some colleges even offer class sets of books with readings for students to use.
  • Does your college library have a subscription to a major news source like The New York Times that students can use without cost? At the College of Western Idaho where I teach, all students have access to The New York Times through a free student account. This major media outlet publishes a wide variety of sources and perspectives, so I often choose topical readings and include the links in my LMS course shell and on my course schedule. I like this method because I can update my course each semester to make sure our readings are current to events the students are experiencing.
  • Is the reading licensed with a Creative Commons license that allows you and students to use the resource?
  • Does your use of the reading fall under the Fair Use Doctrine for educational purposes? Factors to consider here include the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount of work you are using, and the potential effect on the market for the work.

Here are three resources for educators using Open Education Resources:

  • Creative Commons contains a wide variety of CC licensed open readings and resources. Remember to give credit for all Creative Commons sources you use (Title, Author, License, and Source).
  • Fair Use Calculator helps you to apply the four factors to your chosen reading to determine whether it falls under fair use. As an added bonus, you can print out a certificate that you can include in your courses, explaining your reasoning behind designating a reading as falling within fair use.
  • U.S. National Archives offers public domain primary texts and tools that are free for use in your classroom.

*except Mickey Mouse. It’s a long story.


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Fair Use and Classroom Readings Copyright © 2020 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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