Grading Teachers on Copyright Law – Video Recording for the Classroom

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

As educators find that books and lectures don’t impress or excite today’s image-saturated youth, televisions and big-screen monitors are becoming as common in the classroom as blackboards. There is even a special closed-circuit television network just for high schools.

Given the ease with which video can be copied and reproduced, many teachers need to know if and when they may legally record educational TV programs off the air and show them to their students.

 The Legal Rules

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 recorded and shown to students only with the copyright owner’s permission.

Fortunately, the Copyright Act contains a special exception for educational uses of copyrighted materials. 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.

To help educators determine when off-air recording is and is not fair use, a set of very concrete guidelines was created by a committee comprising representatives from educational organizations and copyright owners. These guidelines (known officially as “Guidelines for Off-Air Recording of Broadcast Programming for Educational Purposes”) do not have the force of law and were created in the 1980s, long before YouTube and streaming video services. Many producers do not agree with them, and many teachers aren’t thrilled either, because they offer only limited, temporary access to broadcast materials. However, most copyright experts believe that recording that falls within the guidelines is permissible and would be upheld as fair use if challenged in court. (For additional guidance, see Circular 21, Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians.)

The guidelines apply only to recording and copying 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:

  • 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.
  • A classroom teacher who wants a particular program recorded should ask the school to record it.
  • The video 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 video may be shown to several classes if appropriate.
  • A limited number of copies may be made from each 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 recording was made, it must be destroyed.

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 recording, times shown, and the number of copies made.

Beyond the Guidelines

The guidelines don’t cover many common situations. For example, they say nothing about the legality of keeping a recorded program more than ten days or recording a cable or streaming channel offering.

That does not necessarily mean that such uses could not be permissible under the fair use doctrine. To determine whether or not a particular use is a fair use, four factors must be considered:

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

In fact, you’ll probably know what to do if you just remember that a use that take money out of a copyright owner’s pocket is probably not fair use. Thus,  off-air recording beyond the scope of the guidelines is probably not a fair use if the program’s producer makes recordings available to the schools or the public for purchase or rental, because off-air recording reduces the market for such recordings. This is particularly true where recordings are made available to schools at special discounts. If recordings are not available, limited off-air recording might be a fair use, but no one knows for sure because no court has considered the question.

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.