Rules of Thumb: Copyright Made Simple for Classroom Instructors

November 23, 2016 BY PATRICK LOFTUS
Updated: January 4, 2018


How certain are you that the media you share, and the way you share it in the classroom is legal and fair to the author?

If you’ve been teaching for a while, you probably have a pretty good grasp on how to responsibly handle most forms of media. But just to be sure, we’ve put this post together as a short guide to sharing content properly and, ultimately, avoiding any risk of accidental copyright infringement.

On November 3rd, 2016, we hosted a crash-course in classroom copyright rules to help instructors everywhere stay on the right side of US copyright law.

Dr. Tom Tobin, Coordinator of Learning Technologies at Northeastern Illinois University, introduced a few short-hand rules of thumb, mnemonic devices, and basic concepts to help instructors avoid risk when copying and sharing learning materials.

The ‘PANE’ Rule

Fair-use is the first thing you need to understand if you commonly share media with other people in your line of work.

Essentially, fair-use is a means to defend yourself if someone takes you to court for a copyright violation.

Any time you make a copy of something, you need to make sure the manner in which you share it is fair to the content’s creator. The PANE acronym is an easy-to-remember tool, drawn from language in the Copyright Act of 1976, which you can use to ensure you are sharing content fairly:

  • Purpose: You are using content for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research.
  • Amount: You are using as much as you need and not more (meaning it is hard to prove you’re copying the whole thing).
  • Nature of the Work: You aren’t copying too much information from creative works (factual works are more lenient) and it is not used repeatedly.
  • Economic Impact: Your use of the content or material will not deprive the creator or author or revenue or profit.

Let’s unpack PANE a little further…


Generally speaking, North American copyright law allows classroom instructors to copy and share limited, relevant, third-party material in the classroom environment as they see fit.

That being said, Tom has one important thing to add about for-profit institutions:

If you’re working at a for-profit institution, your purpose is almost always commercial. So be careful if you are working at a for-profit college or university. Even if you’re creating materials for teaching, the fact that your institution is for-profit means that you are at best making a neutral case under purpose.


All this section means is that you should be sensitive to using smaller amounts of the content. Don’t copy more than you need to copy, or share more than you need to share.

Nature of the Work

Pay attention to the type of content you share, how much you share it, and whether it is necessary to share it.

For instance, a judge will likely find it very hard to understand and approve of your decision to allow on-demand streaming of the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy in your Microeconomics course every semester through your online learning platform. Creative works, when used in such a setting, should only be used as much as the situation requires — use your own judgement.

However, if you want to distribute paper copies of a relevant Wall Street Journal article in a business class, your argument for fair-use becomes much stronger.

Economic Impact

This is the first thing judges look at in copyright lawsuits. You should not share and copy material in a way that deprives the author or revenue or profit. So, if you want to share one or two pages from a textbook with your class, that’s fine. But if you copy the whole 400 page textbook worth $300, and share with your class a PDF file of that book for free, you’re looking at a very difficult defense for fair-use.

The Creative Commons Licensing Scheme

Copyright is the standard set of rules for copying and sharing, but licenses can legally deviate from that law by either adding or subtracting restrictions on use of the media in question.

The Creative Commons is a universalized set of licenses used across the internet that authors and creators can use to allow limited kinds of uses to the public domain while preserving the rest of their copyright.

If you encounter media that you really want to use but aren’t sure what licenses are on it, check for any of the following Creative Common allowances:

  • Attribution: Copy, distribute, display, perform, and make derivatives only if you give the author credit.
  • Noncommercial: Copy, distribute, display, perform, and make derivatives only for non-commercial purposes.
  • No Derivative Works: Copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of the work.
  • Share-Alike: Distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the one governing the original.

The Noncommercial license restricts use by for-profit institutions.

Things Not Protected by Copyright

Finally, here are some things not protected by copyright that you can feel free to copy and share at will!

  • Hyperlinking and streaming video via embed/share code
  • Any works published by the federal government
  • Any works that have been around 70+ after author died
  • Any works which the creator has intentionally decided to release the rights to the public

Note: Dr. Tom Tobin is not a lawyer and this post does not constitute legal advice.

Still not sure you’re sharing fairly? Check out the full webinar, Copyright Made Simple for Digital Educators:

3play media logo in blue

Subscribe to the Blog Digest

Sign up for our blog digest. Your privacy is important to us. We’ll never share your email address.