Using Videotape in the Classroom Without Violating Copyright Law

If you're a teacher, you should know if and when you may legally tape educational TV programs and use them in your classroom.

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Teachers need to know if and when they may legally tape educational TV programs off the air and show them to their students.

Permission and the Fair Use Doctrine

Television programs, like most other types of expression, are protected by federal copyright laws. This means that as a general rule, a TV program can legally be taped and shown to students only with the copyright owner's permission.

Fortunately, the Copyright Act contains a special exception. Under what is known as the "fair use" rule, someone other than the copyright owner may make limited use of a copyrighted work without permission for purposes such as teaching, research, scholarship, criticism, parody, and news reporting.

Recording Guidelines

To help educators determine when off-air taping is and is not a fair use, a committee comprising representatives from educational organizations and copyright owners created a set of concrete guidelines -- officially known as "Guidelines for Off-Air Recording of Broadcast Programming for Educational Purposes." The guidelines do not have the force of law and have never been tested in the courts. However, most copyright experts believe that taping that falls within the guidelines is permissible and would be upheld as a fair use if challenged in court.

The guidelines apply only to off-air taping by nonprofit educational institutions, including all public schools and most private schools and colleges.The guidelines do not apply to for-profit language or trade schools.

Here are the basic rules:

  • A classroom teacher who wants a particular program taped should ask the school to record it.
  • The recording may be shown only during the first ten consecutive school days after it is made, and only in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction. A recording may be shown to several classes if appropriate.
  • A limited number of copies may be made from each off-air recording. Each copy is subject to all the provisions governing the original recording.
  • The recording may not be altered in any way. For example, recordings may not be edited to create an anthology or compilation.
  • After the ten-day classroom use period expires, the recording may be used only for evaluation -- that is, to determine whether it should be bought or licensed for permanent inclusion in the teaching curriculum. Not later than 45 calendar days after the material was recorded, it must be destroyed.
  • Only programs broadcast to the general public may be recorded. This includes all programs broadcast to homes and schools. The guidelines do not apply to programs available only from cable television services such as Showtime, HBO, The Disney Channel, C-Span ,and ESPN.

The guidelines do not discuss whether or not a teacher may record a program at home for school use. It seems likely, however, that the practice is permissible so long as all the other guidelines are followed.

No independent organization enforces these guidelines. Schools that want to document their compliance should make and keep records of teacher requests, dates of taping, times shown, and number of copies made.

Beyond the Guidelines

What the guidelines don't allow -- for example, keeping a recorded program more than ten days or taping a cable channel offering -- may or may not be permissible under the fair use doctrine. To determine whether or not a particular use is a fair use, four rather vague factors must be considered:

  • The purpose and character of the use.
  • The nature of the copyrighted work.
  • The amount of copyrighted material used.
  • The effect of the use on the present or future market value of the work.

Here's a simple way to think about it: a use that takes money out of a copyright owner's pocket is probably not a fair use. Thus, recording beyond the scope of the guidelines is probably not a fair use if the program's producer makes DVDs available to the schools or the public for purchase or rental, because the recording reduces the market for such DVDs or videotapes.This is particularly true where DVDs or videotapes are made available to schools at special discounts. If these products are not available, limited recording might be a fair use, but no one knows for sure because no court has considered the question.

Exception for Some PBS Programs

Recording beyond that permitted by the guidelines may be permissible for programs broadcast on PBS (Public Broadcasting System) stations. Producers of many PBS programs permit educational institutions to record their programs off the air and show them for longer than ten days -- sometimes for years. This is not true for all PBS programs, and the scope of the use allowed varies from show to show. Contact the educational or public service coordinator at your local PBS station for information about exceeding the guidelines for any particular PBS program.

More Information

The Association for Information Media and Equipment (AIME), a trade association for film and video producers, publishes a copyright information packet ($19.95) for educators. ( www.aime.org).

For a detailed discussion of the fair use rule and other aspects of copyright law, get Getting Permission, by Richard Stim (Nolo).

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