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Copyright Issues

Basic Copyright Guidelines  

Prepared by Dr. Taylor, Hughes Middle School

April 2009  

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on copyright law, which is a very complex and ever-changing area. See sources at the end of this document.

I have prepared this document primarily in response to parents who ask me for ways to help their students. Of course, students should read it as well!

The Fuzzy Gray Area:  

Copyright actions are civil actions. Most are settled out of court. The decisions are sealed and not reported. This leaves the legal boundaries fuzzy. We cannot learn from the experiences of others.   

What is Copyright?  

Copyright is granted to the creator of any form of expression that is recorded in some durable form (written on paper, painted, recorded, captured on film, etc.) and allows them recognition and compensation for their creative endeavors.   If it is still simply an idea in your head, it is not copyrighted. It must be recorded in some tangible form. This copyright is implied even if the copyright symbol is not present. It is not necessary to register a copyright to claim ownership; however, it becomes useful if litigation occurs!  

Our “Founding Fathers” actually included copyright protection in the U. S. Constitution, recognizing that creators of new works should be compensated for their ideas and work in order to simultaneously encourage and protect innovation.   However, new ideas spring from existing ideas, and they recognized the need to build on the works of others. This was identified as Fair Use of Copyrighted Materials (see more below).

Copyright laws protect six rights of the creator over control of their work:

  1. Reproduction of their work
  2. Adaptation or creation of derived works
  3. Distribution of copies (sale, gift, etc.)
  4. Public performance
  5. Public display
  6. Digital transmission

Remember: Students are also protected by copyright laws! 

Copyright protection is limited by a set number of years, depending on the nature of the work and the creator. 

Unless permission to use copyrighted material is expressly given in writing, always assume permission must be acquired/or Fair Use followed. This includes the Internet and anything you borrow from the Internet (text, pictures, etc.). Not everything on the Internet is in the public domain! In fact, very little is! Assume that, unless expressly stated by the owner, it is not public domain. This is a very common misconception people have about the Internet, even among teachers. For some works, if time does not permit, the bibliography helps with compliance with Fair Use.  

There are three people for whom we prepare a bibliography when doing research projects:

  1. The reader: So that they know where you found your information. This gives your work credibility. 
  2. Yourself: So that you can easily and quickly return to your sources for additional information or verification.
  3. The person who did the original work: Their work is protected by Copyright Law.   You do not have the right to use it without giving them credit or obtaining permission, depending upon the circumstances.

Fair Use of Copyrighted Materials:  

So, what may we use, and how may we use it? 

  “Can use it” is not the same as “may use it”  

‘Fair Use’ provisions give users the opportunity to use or reproduce copyrighted materials under certain conditions. It also allows the courts to consider both the rights of the user and the rights of the creator at the same time. 

It is the responsibility of the user to know the conditions of the copyright of materials they are using or borrowing and how to comply with fair use guidelines.

There are exemptions for educational uses; however, they are not nearly as generous as educators and students commonly believe! I will concentrate on student use. Teachers and principals have other additional specific guidelines, most of which involve time limits, spontaneity, and teacher-driven inspiration.

I tell students: You have permission to make one copy (or printout) for your own personal schoolwork. Assume you do not have permission to copy and place it in or on your research project or product. Assume you do not have permission to display it! You may take notes (paraphrase and/or summarize) and use these notes when you write your report if, and only if, you cite the source in your bibliography according to fair use guidelines.

Four criteria for ‘Fair Use’ (all four must be considered together):

  1. Purpose and character of use (commercial verses educational)
  2. Nature of copyrighted materials (factual verses creative)
  3. Amount to be copied/used in relation to the whole work
  4. Impact on the market and/or value of the work (not limited to financial)

Questions:    Which do you think is most important in a court of law?

                        Which do you think is least important in a court of law?

As easy as it is to plagiarize, it is almost as easy to catch it. It is my mission to ensure that students become ethical and effective users of information and ideas. In this electronic era, it is easy to plagiarize (presenting someone else’s work as your own, either implicitly or explicitly). It is our responsibility to teach students how not to plagiarize. They are unlikely to be sued for copyright infringement in middle school; however, they are practicing for when it becomes more likely.  

Here at Hughes Middle School:            

Grade 6: source cards, note cards, and bibliography taught and required.

Grade 7: source cards, note cards, and bibliography reviewed and required.

Grade 7 GATE: in addition to above, parenthetical citations taught and required.

Grade 8: Source cards, note cards, and bibliography reviewed and required. Parenthetical citation taught and required, as per LBUSD curricular guidelines.

Teachers differ in their final requirements for research papers. If a teacher does not ‘grade’ the research process (notes, source cards, citations, outlines, bibliography, etc.), some students will not do it. I am working on getting teachers to actually grade the note cards and source cards. Most do! 

I am happy to provide parents with copies of my handouts and materials; however, students should be able to locate these in their notebooks.

Regarding Science Lab Reports:  

There are several places in a science lab report where citations would be expected:

  • Introduction (background research, history of the research area)
  • Materials Methods (if you are following someone else’s procedures)
  • Discussion/Conclusion (where comparisons are made with other research results)

Practical Compliance for Students and Their Research Projects:

  • Always prepare a bibliography. Use a one-to-one model (If you use it, cite it. If you do not use it, do not cite it).
  • Organize!!!! This will help prevent mistakes that can result in plagiarism. 

            Source cards                                                Note Cards    

            Bibliography                                                  Research Paper

  • Illustrations: Do not overdo pictures; illustrate. Do not decorate a research project. Write your own captions. Know why each illustration is important, and include this in the caption. Otherwise, do not use it. If you do not cite illustrations you ‘borrow’, it is plagiarism.   Some copyrighted illustrations cannot be used even under Fair Use. Even if students are not good artists, it is a better learning experience for them to produce their own rather than cut and paste from the internet. 
  • Your question(s) drive your research. Avoid report of information. Ask research questions that require analysis, synthesis, or evaluation of ideas. 


  • Do not look for cute/decorative research projects. Help students be scholarly!
  • Look for and expect compliance with Copyright Fair Use.
  • Make your students do a bibliography for any research project, whether the teacher requires (grades) it or not.   


Copyright. 2009. United States Copyright Office, Library of Congress. 4/3/2009 (

Simpson, Carol. Copyright for Schools: A Practical Guide. Worthington, OH: Linworth Publishing, Inc. 2005.    

SPLC. 2009. Student Press Law Center. 4/3/2009 (