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Copyright and Photocopying in the TEFL Classroom

There is a persistent image that crops up again and again when it comes to teachers: a sad and lonely figure standing at a photocopier printing off a huge pile of material for their class.

But is that sad figure breaking the law? Could the teacher who supplies their class with copies of an Auden poem to analyze be fined?

This article looks at copyright and the law and what you, as a TEFL teacher, are responsible for.

The Law & the Location

We should first say that whilst there are some general rules we can use to talk about copyright, each country has their own laws and what may be perfectly acceptable in Taiwan might well be frowned upon in Ireland.

So if you are worried that what you are doing is breaking the law, find out from a local source whether it is or it isn’t.

But… having said that, we can make some fairly general comments about what you can and can’t do when it comes to photocopying (or printing off) material for you and your class.

Is It Copyright?

That’s the first question to ask: is what you are photocopying actually under copyright?

The only time you can copy and print to your heart’s content with no fear of breaking the law is:

  1. if the work is so old copyright has expired (in the US for example, it’s the duration of the author’s life plus 70 years)
  2. if the work explicitly states there is no copyright (e.g. it’s in the public domain, has a Creative Commons stamp, or the author has said anyone can copy it freely)

Otherwise… copyright applies and you have to follow the rules!

Copyright and Fair Use

So let’s assume that what you want to copy was written recently. For TEFL teachers this could easily be a newspaper article, pages from a book which you’d like to study with the class and so on.

Essentially the laws of copyright are there to protect the author and make sure they get just compensation for their work (and of course to stop you profiting financially from their work at the same time).

So really this means that if, by photocopying, you are depriving an author of chunk of income then it’s generally deemed to be illegal and you could get prosecuted for it.

But the law is also reasonable and practical and allows you to use the material in a reasonable way, especially when it comes to education.

In the USA for example if you need material for research, you can make a single copy of:

  • a book chapter
  • a newspaper article
  • a short story or essay
  • a chart, diagram, etc

So feel free to photocopy a chapter from a grammar book or a story from a newspaper, take it home and then prepare a red-hot lesson using it.

However, when it comes to giving material to your students to work on in class, slightly different rules apply.

You can give material to each student if:

  • It’s short (less than 250 words for a poem; less than 2,500 words for a short story; it’s a single diagram, etc).
  • It’s done on the spur of the moment. This means you can’t photocopy loads and loads of material during the holidays and hand them out gradually during the term. Instead it must fit in with the lesson you are giving. Imagine, for example, you give a lesson about the third-conditional and suddenly remember George Michael’s song from your youth: Careless Whisper with all those should haves and could haves. During the break you nip out and photocopy the lyrics and then hand them out. That’s fine.
  • It’s limited and not systematic. You don’t make a habit of photocopying the same material for different classes, for example, and have stacks of photocopies ready in the cupboard for each lesson, year in and year out.

Again, this all sounds very reasonable. And that’s what the law on copyright is all about when it comes to teachers. If you think about it then it does seem pretty obvious what you can and can’t do.

Common Sense

So the general ideas around copyright and photocopying come down to common sense and fair use.

An article here, a table there, a diagram here, song lyrics there… but not much more, please and never, ever do what a school I used to work for did: photocopy entire coursebooks and then have the students pay for them!

Note: the information here is presented as a general guide and is correct to the best of our knowledge. Often circumstances – especially where you are teaching – will change what you may or may not be legally entitled to do so always check with a local source before settling down in front of the photocopier for a session.

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