Copyright in English language teaching
The posting of copyright material on this site is prohibited.
The following notes are the non-binding, totally un-authoritative opinions of some members of this site. Readers are strongly encouraged to take professional legal advice and not to rely on these musings. Those wishing a deeper understanding are also encouraged to click the links at the bottom of this article. You should also be aware that copyright legislation differs between jurisdictions
What is copyright?
In essence copyright is about the ownership of original works. Such an original work may take differing forms including but not limited to text, audio recordings, images, computer software, films and music. Copyright comes into existence immediately upon creation of the original work - the author does not need to make any special provision in order for them to have copyright protection. The copyright owner may licence the work for use by third parties.
In the case of text, copyright continues to exist for 70 years after the death of the creator, and for 50 years in the case of audio recordings.
When is something covered by copyright?
Although laws differ between jurisdictions, in general anything which is published by an individual or an organization is covered by copyright legislation in some way. Only the explicit placing of a work in the “Public Domain” removes copyright protection. (Anything posted on Teflpedia is explicitly placed in the public domain.)
In other words, the default situation is that a work is covered by copyright unless it is explicitly placed in the public domain.
Anything published in a newspaper, or on a web page, broadcast on the radio, and MP3 files are all covered by copyright legislation. (How far the owners of that copyright will go to defend their copyright - or indeed, if they are happy about the distribution of their works - is another question.)
So, what can I use in class?
If you are an institution or a materials creator you need to be very careful, study the appropriate legislation, and make sure you get permission when necessary.
However if you are a private teacher involved in face to face teaching activities you have an escape under the "Berne Convention;" which explicitly allows for copyrighted material to be used without prior permission in teaching situations.  Most developed countries, including the USA, are covered by the Berne Convention. 
The convention states:
“Art.10.2.- It shall be a matter for legislation in the countries of the Union, and for special agreements existing or to be concluded between them, to permit the utilization, to the extent justified by the purpose, of literary or artistic works by way of illustration in publications, broadcasts or sound or visual recordings for teaching, provided such utilization is compatible with fair practice”
This has been interpreted in different ways in different countries but most legislations seem to allow the following under face to face classroom situations:
- Copy and distribute articles for use in class.
- Play MP3’s in a classroom situation.
What you cannot do is format these things into a textbook and sell it without permission, as this would not be "fair practice".
It seems that you should also avoid using the same copyrighted material year after year.
Finally, the above does not give you the right to photocopy course books or copy course CD’s.
Implications for this site
Whereas you may be able to use copyright materials in class, publishing a class based on copyright material on a website would be a violation of copyright. So that great class you created based on that wonderful newspaper article which tied into the song by what’s-his-name you got from YouTube can’t be uploaded here.
- "Copyright and Web teaching" - a useful article which explores the issues.
- Wikipedia - Berne Convention
- Quite technical article from a European perspective
- Comprehensive Australian guidelines for schools.
- Clear article about the US situation from The University of Maryland
- Various copyright teaching Scenarios from The University of Minnesota
- More restrictive UK legislation which allows copying - but not with a photocopier
- Complete text of UK legislation