Homeschooling, Copyright Law, and Fair Use

Homeschooling families, like everyone else, look for ways to make a buck stretch a bit further these days. Since our education dollars come out of our own pockets, and quite often we have multiple children for whom to purchase books and supplies, frugality has become an essential part of our lives. But while we are scrimping, saving, and squeezing our budget for every last penny, we need to remember to hold onto our integrity. Taking the time to understand how copyright laws and fair use of materials for educational purposes applies to the home educator is an important part of the process. For purposes of this post, I'm going to stick with some simple basics of copyright law, as well as those aspects that are most likely to apply to homeschoolers, based on how most of us use the materials we purchase, borrow, and are given. We should remember that copyright laws are guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 states that a copyright is a protection granted:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

Our country has decided that intellectual property, is, indeed, property. Copyright protection is granted at the point of creation, and while registration is not necessary, it does offer verifiable proof of ownership should legal action become necessary to protect one's intellectual property.

We should keep in mind that the resources we use do not necessarily become ours, to do with as we please, just because we have purchased or borrowed them. Their use is still governed by the law, and the expectation of the intellectual property owner that they will be recompensed for any reproduction of their work. We are not exempt from copyright laws because we are home educators.

"Fair use" was codified in the Copyright Act of 1976. Fair use allows intellectual property to be reproduced for several purposes, including research and education. But it also requires teachers to consider how materials we have in our possession are going to be used and reproduced- whether a textbook, workbook, written work of fiction or nonfiction, slideshow, or video.

Many experienced homeschoolers have produced educational materials over the years to address the specific needs of the home education community. Some have decided to retain the rights to their work, others have granted limited reproduction for use within your own family, and a few have given permission for the free and unrestricted use of their materials. It is up to each of us to carefully read the copyright information on the books and resources we've purchased, and respect the wishes of the copyright owner. We are also bound by law, and hopefully honesty and honor, to be careful when we reproduce portions of other's work for our blogs and newsletters. Always ask permission, and ALWAYS link to the original source, whether it is a cartoon, a humorous story, or a list of helpful hints.

Law provides copyright protection to “works of authorship” in order to foster the creation of culture. Its best-known feature is protection of owners’ rights. But copying, quoting, and generally re-using existing cultural material can be, under some circumstances, a critically important part of generating new culture. (Center for Social Media, p. 7, Sec 1:5)

This chart can help us decide if we are in compliance with the "fair use" of materials for the purposes of education:

The problem with fair use is that it is not specific. In other words, how much is too much? Can we copy a paragraph, a page, part of a slideshow, a 30-second video clip? Those sound reasonable, depending on the length of the work in question. But what if we are taking steps to preserve entire consumable workbooks for resale or as hand-me-downs later, when our kids are finished with school?

Some folks at the International Communication Association put together a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use. It is not a legally binding document, but it does provide those who wish to maintain their integrity a framework for making good decisions. You can also read Reproduction of Copyright Works by Educators and Librarians by the US Copyright Office.

Sound like more work for the already busy homeschooler? It isn't really that much more to ask of yourself. Read the copyright information on the materials you buy or borrow. If you still aren't sure, a call or email to the author or publisher will quickly clarify things.

An even better question is, "What will my kids learn about honor and integrity by seeing me take the time to respect copyright law and the intellectual property of others?" We live in a world where movies and music are pirated almost as a matter of course- files are traded, photos ripped, with nary a thought to the fact that, without permission, use of many of these materials is stealing. Our kids are learning from our example how to be honest and without reproach in their daily lives. While you are doing the numbers in your homeschool budget this year, ask yourself how much that is worth.