Copyright and Fair Use: Free Poster for Your School or Library

The issue of copyright comes up often in a school. Teachers want to use material in their lesson: newspapers, magazines, books, films, recordings, art, and so on. Often, they turn to the librarian for help on understanding Fair Use in the Library.

The best source for understanding Fair Use is the Library of Congress Copyright Office’s own information. Circular 21 summarizes the law about Fair Use. Download Circular 21 here. (pdf)

While it’s a relatively short document, just 24 pages, the section that you’ll want to read for books is even shorter, pages 5-7. The poster shows the main points of the Fair Use guidelines.

First, single copies are fine.
The problem is when multiple copies are reproduced for use in a classroom. In that case, there are three tests to apply, and some prohibited uses.

3 Tests of Fair Use

For reproduction that is allowed under Fair Use, there are 3 tests:

  1. The Spontaneity Test – Teacher just decided to use this material and doesn’t have time to request permission. Please try to locate the author’s email and ask permission.
  2. The Brevity Test – Short sections, usually less than 10%
  3. The Cumulative Effect Test – Copying is for only one course in the school; no more than 9 instances of such multiple copying for one course during one class term; no more than 3 from the same collective work during one class term.

Prohibited under Fair Use

The following instances of multiple copies are not allowed at all under Fair Use.

  1. Cannot be used to create or replace an anthology, compilation or collective works.
  2. Cannot copy from works intended to be consumable, such as workbooks,exercises, standardized tests, etc.
  3. Copying shall not substitute for the purchase of books or be repeated by the same teacher from term to term.
  4. Students cannot be charged.

Discussion of Fair Use Guidelines

We think the Spontaneity Test is one of the biggest changes in the last few decades. Thirty years ago, a teacher would have to write to the publicity or rights department of a publisher, hoping for an answer sometime this year. Today, however, teachers can easily find an author’s website and email them directly. Believe me, if I received a request from a teacher to use something from a book, I’d be included to give permission. If you asked to photocopy 100 copies of a color picture book, the answer is no. Emphatically. However, if you only want to photocopy one page for a class of 20 students, I’m likely to say yes. Authors want readers reading their work! Reasonable requests will likely be approved within minutes of your request. Be brave: Ask.

In the above example, I said that a single page would likely be acceptable to an author. Brevity is indeed important to authors. If you photocopy a full color picture book, a) you’re paying a lot for paper and ink for a product that won’t last, b) you’ve deprived the author of income for those copies. One page versus 32 page is a crucial distinction.

The Cumulative Test is frustrating to some teachers. When they find a favorite author, are working on an author study unit and so on, it’s hard not to use material for multiple stories. For example, if you’re studying a contemporary author and want to read chapters from all of his/her books, you can only use copies from three books. No more. Again, think of the impact on the author’s income. It’s not just the loss from one sale, but from multiple sales.

These are tricky issues because schools, libraries and teachers have one overwhelming concern: cost. Besides quality education, the lack of funding is the biggest issue teachers face when looking for teaching materials. There may be an absolutely perfect book for a certain lesson, but there are no funds to buy it. Teachers spend too much of their own money on such purchases. Publishers and authors understand this problem and work to hold down costs. But it’s a Catch-22. We can’t afford to give away books; teachers can’t afford to buy them.

There’s no easy solution. But U.S. Copyright Law still says you can’t photocopy that work. The author’s copyright is the only thing that allows them to keep working on the next book. Without copyright protection, an author’s ability to make a living from their writing is lost. As a culture, we need to protect copyright to encourage more writers and artists of all kinds. It’s not easy in the short run; but in the long run, it’s good for society.


The following poster may be reproduced and used as needed. We suggest posting it in your library, teacher workroom, beside copy machines and so on. To save it, right-click and SaveAs.

Free poster about Fair Use - Copyright for Libraries and Schools | MimsHouse.com