7 questions–and answers–about copyright during online learning

Back in March, copyright was not top-of-mind for many people, as health and educational continuity took precedence. Many publishers waived copyright fees for use of materials in distance learning, made teaching resources freely available and aggregated useful content. Plenty of content was used without permission of the copyright owners–some under legitimate “fair use,” some out of lack of knowledge, and some opportunistically.

In the first four months of the pandemic, five major trends were observed in terms of licensing and reuse of copyrighted content:

  • Print photocopying vastly increased as students lost access to materials in the classroom
  • Online learning platforms and other edtech tools gained traction
  • Publishers created no-cost licenses to enable teaching under these new circumstance
  • More assessments moved online
  • Teachers taught using materials they copied or posted online, sometimes under paid or free licenses, sometimes under fair use, and sometimes by committing infringements that rightsholders were willing to ignore

During the summer, this triage of educational practices and policies slowed down as teachers and students settled into the new normal of extended remote and blended learning. It is during this time that an increasing number of universities, schools, and districts started asking about best practices for copyright and licensing.

The fact is, copyright is complex and the massive shift to distance learning has only compounded the issue for many educators who just want to do what is right.

Following is a comprehensive primer based on the top questions educators have asked related to copyright, public domain and fair use, and how they apply to distance learning. The explanations below are intended to help educators better manage copyright compliance for the use of published materials in our new paradigm.

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