Distance Learning & Online Courses

The TEACH Act, Fair Use, and Copyright

Distance education comes in many different forms and almost invariably raises copyright questions. A distance education program may be a formal course that is offered online, or it may be simply a site where students can obtain materials in connection with a more traditional course. In any such event, educational content is being delivered to students. The process of digitizing, uploading, and delivering content routinely raises copyright issues. Much of the content will be protected by copyright law, and to the extent that the program is using someone else’s copyrighted works, the instructor or institution needs to resolve copyright questions.

As an instructor you may ordinarily use materials in distance education under one of the following circumstances:
  • Your materials are in the public domain and not protected under copyright, or
  • You have permission from the copyright owner, or
  • Your use is within fair use, or
  • Your use is within the requirements of the TEACH Act.
While issues of permission and fair use are covered elsewhere on this website, the following links provide details and insights about the TEACH Act. Added by Congress to the U.S. Copyright Act in 2002, the TEACH Act (the “Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act”) has the primary objective of balancing the protection of copyrighted works against the desire to use these materials for instruction in distance education. Accordingly, it does not allow all uses of all works. It may also be implemented only with considerable attention to the many details of the law.

Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC license from the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University, Kenneth D. Crews, director.