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Copyright laws and your school communications

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Posted by Jay Cooper
Apr 30, 2020 10:01:00 AM

As schools administrators and teachers scramble to plan and implement remote learning programs, you must be careful that the content you are using is free and clear of any copyright laws that prohibit copying, distributing and posting it online at will. In the rush to equip teachers and parents with learning materials via school remote learning center portals and classroom pages, you must be careful to not infringe on the rights of the original producers or owners of the materials.

Many learning packets, take-home and instructional materials have clearly listed: "NOT TO BE PHOTOCOPIED" and in those cases especially, even the most well-meaning acts can unwittingly put you and/or your school on the the wrong side of the law.

NOTE: This article, initially published in 2018, and was not originally intended to delve into the use of learning materials. Given the current conditions, however, of schools filling their online teaching pipelines with content, I strongly encourage due diligence on protecting your school and school staff from copyright violations. There are altogether different sets of guidelines, experts and law firms dealing with educational fair use laws that apply to learning materials.

For a legal perspective on how to stay on the right side of the law with your learning materials, I recommend you refer to this article, Remote Learning and Avoiding Copyright Infringement, by Dori Pagé Antonetti and Gwen J. Zittoun, of the law firm Shipman & Goodman. These  legal experts understand copyright implications for school districts that are working hard to keep kids learning.

Well, I’m no lawyer, but I’ve done my fair share of writing and publishing in a variety of media, and I can say most assuredly: some of the content you’re posting on your school website or using elsewhere in your school communications could very well belong to someone else. It's time to review copyright laws and your school communications.Rather, we're addressing copyright considerations for school communications (e.g., websites, social media, etc.) targeting the school community.

Aye, you may be a pirate

Yes, you could be pirating someone else’s work, but believe me, Captain Hook, you’re not alone. You’d be surprised at how most people assume that anything they find online is not subject to copyright law and can be used freely or even modified without permission. It's so easy, after all, to find, copy and paste.

Fact is, just like any other published material, copyright law protects content in digital and electronic form. This goes for content used on websites, blogs, social media and any published works.

That’s right. Just because you found it via Google – and don’t we find just about everything on Google these days? – doesn’t mean it’s fair game. Remember, Google is a search engine.

So before you go about embedding that new Taylor Swift release, or copying and pasting that Under Armor logo onto your website, think twice. This caution applies to ebook downloads, recordings, videos, curriculum, text, any digital materials and non-digital content as well.

Fair use and public domain in schools

Conversely, don’t think that everything on the web is off limits either. The sharing nature of the web, social media and online communities encourages an open exchange of content that certainly is consistent with the mission of education.

Fair use and public domain are two aspects of copyright law that many organizations use to take advantage of copyrighted material. Fair use allows you to use portions of copyrighted work without permission from the owner. If the purpose of the use is for nonprofit, educational purposes, fair use may apply.

Public Domain material can be freely used for commercial or non-commercial purposes, without permission from the original copyright owner. Certain works like familiar phrases, facts, and government documents; or those that the original author has released to the public would be public domain.

Creative Commons is a wonderful resource that makes available to schools a variety of content, providing you follow their rules on how to use it. Creators of art, photos, videos, written works, and music license their works to Creative Commons for use by schools and other organizations. So long as you fully attribute, don’t change or make money off it, you can use the material. Flickr, a social media network, is another great resource for finding publicly shared images you can use for your school website.

But even Creative Commons, Flickr and other which you can think of as one big free content grab for schools, require that you follow their rules and seek permission before using anyone else’s material. You can use their stuff, but you have to play by their rules.

Protecting intellectual property

Copyright laws are far-reaching. They were established to protect and reward the creators of original content (and rightly so) from those wanting to profit from unauthorized use. Copyright is meant to (rightly so) protect and reward creativity. Properties like books, movies, songs, game and entertainment software are watched closely by copyright attorneys.

Copyright is also important to huge marketers who have a lot invested in their respective brands and want to guard against infringement or capitalization on their brands without due notice or compensation.

A different motivation exists, however, when it comes to schools and intellectual property. Music teachers know that it’s no problem for their students to sing songs in class, but if they’re going to give a show and charge admission, now you’re into that royalty arena. Makes sense. If you’re going to make money from an original work, the creator/author deserves a cut. (I didn’t know until recently that a small high school in a remote county somewhere still needs to pay for the rights to produce Peter Pan.)

Credit where credit is due

Let’s say you have an art teacher who’s pretty handy with a 35mm camera and has taken some real artistic shots that are used throughout your website. She comes to you and wants a credit line: photo by Fran Leibovitz. No problem, right?

Sure give her credit where credit is due, but, technically the district is the owner and responsible for the content. According to Rebecca Stroder, writing in Education Digest, if a district employee creates a copyrightable work, such as a photograph, or writes a poem, and it’s within the scope of his or her job, the district owns the work or is the legal author.

Just like lesson plans created by teachers, unless otherwise spelled out in a legal contract, the district owns the works (called “works made for hire”) and the employee needs permission from the district to use it outside, in this case, the website. If permission is granted, the best policy is to provide a credit line near the item or at the bottom of the page.

Don’t poke the giant.

Be especially careful when using materials (e.g., logos, trademarks) from large, brand-conscious companies and organizations. Some of these owners aggressively enforce misuse of their marks.

School communicators work hard to establish a school ‘brand’ in their communities. Steve Mulvenon, a media consultant and former school district communications director, says be careful when “borrowing” good ideas from universities, pro teams and business. Check out his article on the National School Public Relations Association website.

Schools sometimes get caught with their hand caught in the copyright cookie jar. The good news is that, in most cases, the worst that happens is a 'cease and desist' order. “Hey, take that down. That’s mine!”, from the owner. Rare is the case that leads to a lawsuit against a school.

Where there is risk, there are attorneys, and where there are attorney’s there’s insurance. Internet liability insurance can cover everything the infringement of intellectual property, virus transmission, privacy issues, but such safeguards are more applicable for the commercial websites. (Schools don’t have deep pockets for lawsuit payouts.)

For a deeper dive on permissions and intellectual property, you have to check out attorney Richard Stim, who’s authored some comprehensive writings on the subject. In his article Websites: Five Ways to Stay Out of Trouble, he shows some great examples of simple permission forms to use and stresses to assume the works are protected, always ask for permission, and be quick to remove unauthorized material.

Permission example

Here’s a disclaimer used by a district that addresses ‘outbound’ permission, is hedging against material on its site that may have originated elsewhere, and is protecting original content.


All information provided on this website is for non-commercial, educational purposes. Reference to commercial products or trade names does not represent an endorsement of these products or companies by the Rockwood School District.

While care has been used in creating this site, the Rockwood School District cannot guarantee its accuracy. While the Rockwood School District actively monitors the content of this website, we do not claim responsibility for the content on outside, or linked, sites. If you see something questionable (advertisements, links to inappropriate websites, foul language, etc.), please contact the webmaster at

All material on this website, unless otherwise noted, is the intellectual property of the Rockwood School District. No material may be copied or used without the express written permission of the Rockwood School District.


Make school blogs your own.

Whether it’s a superintendent's blog, or one for a principal, coach or any school staffer, allow the author to exercise opinion and have creative leeway. By the same token, a blog author might take liberties with images, video clips, teaching materials, music or some other digital content. Whoever’s ultimately responsible for managing and supervising your blogs should take the time to review copyright and permissions with all content providers at your school.

If your school is creating new content (photos, text, videos, etc.) and posting it in blogs and on your website, you might want to consider watermarking to promote that it belongs to your school. An increasingly common practice among colleges – and to a lesser degree, school districts – watermarking in effect brands your content.

This can be cool if you’ve got a simple mark that you can place in a subtle yet noticeable spot on the photo. It reinforces your school brand as that image is shared across various social media. But don’t clutter up your images with watermarks. Also, if you do choose to use watermarks, be consistent. Photoshop and iWatermark are among some of the apps you can use if you want to go that route.

School property. No trespassing.

Speaking of ownership, when entering into third-party agreements with any web design or web hosting providers, be sure your school retains the rights to all website materials. Things can get ugly if a school district decides to switch website providers.

If it gets sticky and you’ve got an obstinate vendor who may rightfully own the materials, get screen captures of all your school pages, copies of every image, and a complete list of the IP addresses. You don’t want a lame-duck provider on the outs to hold your material hostage when you switch vendors.

Finally, protect what's theirs and yours.

Like I said, I’m no copyright attorney, but caution and common sense should prevail when it comes to managing the content your school is either using or creating.

When sharing content you suspect belongs rightfully to someone else, put yourself in the place of the struggling artist trying to eke out a living. Assume they own it, ask for permission to use, be prepared to pay the fiddler in one way or another.

Lastly, when sharing original content, be respectful of the student or staffer who created it, give credit, and do all you can to protect their work. You’ll be doing the right thing, and protecting your school district in the process.


1 Stroder, Rebecca S. What Every School Should Know about Intellectual Property Education Digest: Essential Readings Condensed for Quick Review, v71 n6 p35-41 Feb 2006. Print.


Related resources:

Teaching from a Distance and Copyright Considerations, Library of Congress blog article

TEACH (Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization) Act, FAQs, American Library Assoc.

Remote Learning and Avoiding Copyright Infringement, by attorneys Dori Pagé Antonetti and Gwen J. Zittoun



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Author Avatar
Posted by Jay Cooper

Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at

Topics: Marketing Communication School Districts Private schools

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