What do Online Colleges Need to Know about Intellectual Property RightsIssues surrounding intellectual property rights and online college education go relatively unnoticed by students, but they are of particular concern to instructors.

Copyright infringement can happen when a professor copies textbooks or multimedia works without appropriate permissions and posts them for his or her class to read and discuss for an assignment. Professors who do not understand the rules about copyrights and fair use for educational purposes risk law suits that can lead to loss of employment in many cases.

Here is a quick overview of how copyrights work, what constitutes fair use and how academia traditionally handles copyright issues.

Copyright Rules

Originally authored works that include but are not limited to novels, poems, plays, software, art work and music are protected via copyright laws. This means that no one can copy and use the materials without permission from the copyright owner.

Previous copyright laws required authors to register and place copyright notifications on their work to reap the benefits of copyright protection. Currently, registration and notification is not required for copyright protection, and similar copyright rules have been established in nearly all parts of the world.

An exception to the copyright rules is the fair use of copyrighted materials without the authors permission for educational purposes.

Fair Use

Fair use is the one defense that instructors can use when faced with copyright infringement violations. The rules state that certain materials can be copied for the sake of class room discussion. For instance, publicly broadcasted programs can be video taped and shown within a classroom. However, there are limits on how many copies of the tapes can be made and how long the materials can be viewed without deciding to purchase the broadcasted programs. This scenario becomes more complicated when online college professors post copies of videos that students can download for themselves; subsequently, multiple copies of the video would have been distributed which would potentially disqualify the instructor’s actions as “fair use.”

According to attorneys who specialize in intellectual property law, the rules associated with fair use are somewhat ambiguous. Normally, these lawyers would rely on previous case outcomes to help clarify what constitutes fair use in an educational setting, but not enough cases have been tried where traditional classroom instructors have had to defend fair use of broadcasted materials. However, it is generally understood that if copies are made to avoid paying for a broadcast or textbook then it is not fair use because the author is being cheated out of his or her livelihood.

Online instructors can limit their liability for violating copyright laws by following their university’s policies regarding fair use which usually involves acquiring permission from copyright owners.

Obtaining a Permission Agreement

Online instructors need to find out if the materials that they want to copy and use in their virtual classrooms require permission to use. For example, older works that were published before 1922 are considered to be a part of the public domain and are eligible to be copied and distributed at will. Materials that are not in the public domain are subject to copyright laws, and online instructors should identify the copyright owner so that they can start the permission process. After contacting the copyright owner, the instructor must communicate the reason for requested use and the rights that they want to obtain. The final step is getting the permission agreement in writing; if legal issues arise, online instructors do not have to rely on a shaky fair use clause when they have written permission.


While online educational programs are convenient to both students and faculty, the accessible delivery format makes copyright infringement violations even more obvious. Instructors who want to avoid costly legal issues relating to intellectual property rights and online college educational materials should make a habit of pursuing permission for use of copyright protected materials.

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