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Copyright and the virtual classroom

Teaching practices often involve some reuse of third party copyright-protected material. This refers to any content in which copyright subsists but does not belong to you or to the University and could include images (photographs, diagrams, paintings etc.), text extracts, film clips, music and sound recordings, song lyrics and student work.

Generally, copyright provides a high degree of protection, giving rights owners exclusive control over many kinds of use of their works, including copying. For example, the distribution of scanned copies of book chapters to support your teaching is permissible only under the terms of the University's CLA Higher Education licence. To find out more about supplying course readings to students, please see the Library's scanning service.

However, in the course of delivering non-commercial teaching to students specifically, whether in person on campus or in recordings uploaded to the University's secure, password-protected Virtual Learning Environment, in the context of non-commercial teaching the reasonable reuse of third party copyright-protected content, without permission from the rights owner, should not infringe copyright as long as you ensure that:

  • your use is necessary to facilitate or support a teaching point or critique, so is not merely decorative or extraneous;
  • your use is not excessive, or more than necessary for your specific purpose;
  • your use does not otherwise conflict unduly with the interests of copyright owners or the 'normal exploitation' of their work (e.g. the expectation of charging reproduction fees for commercial stock photography); and
  • you include accompanying acknowledgement identifying the author and title/source (unless it would be impossible to do so).


This is because UK law contains copyright exceptions, providing a legal defence to claims of infringement in certain, limited circumstances. These include fair dealing 'for the sole purpose of illustration for instruction', and fair dealing by the use of a quotation. Your use of a third party copyright-protected work is very likely to constitute 'fair dealing' if you meet the conditions above, but this assessment is always context-specific.

For example, it would be possible for the use of a third party copyright-protected work within a lecture recording to be fair if the recording is accessible only to students enrolled on that module but unfair if it is made available to the general public. Similarly, depending on the circumstances, it could be fair dealing to include material in slides shown in a lecture and captured in a recording, but unfair to disseminate individual copies of the same material to students in a course pack. Whether such use is ultimately fair dealing will depend entirely on the nature of the material and the purpose and extent of the use taking place.

Copyright exceptions are fundamental to enabling normal pedagogical practice in both the physical and virtual classroom - but staff members must take care to ensure that their use of third party copyright-protected material within Teaching and Learning materials remains fair and reasonable when relying on a statutory copyright exception under UK law. In particular, it is important to consider the context of your use and to meet all of the conditions specified above. Please read the additional guidance provided below to ensure that your use of copyright works in a teaching context does not infringe. If you have any questions, please contact


Essential Questions

What is copyright?

Copyright is an intellectual property right providing automatic protection against unauthorised uses of original creative works. UK copyright law gives exclusive rights to creators and owners of copyright to control how their works are used (copyright restrictions) but also provides limits to this protection allowing reasonable reuse in some specific circumstances (copyright exceptions), including for teaching. Whether you are able to rely upon a copyright exception always depends on the context of the use.

In the UK, the main copyright exception for teaching applies irrespective of whether the teaching is face-to-face, or delivered digitally via a secure, password-protected Virtual Learning Environment.

Note that not all third-party material is protected by copyright, so some works are free to copy and reuse without any copyright implications. These are said to be in the 'public domain', which includes:

  • Material that is too trivial or commonplace to qualify for copyright protection - e.g. facts or names.
  • Material that has been expressly dedicated to the public domain by the rights owner - e.g. using the Creative Commons Zero ('CC0') tool.
  • Material that was never protected by copyright in the first place, because it pre-dates the existence of copyright - e.g. works of antiquity and folklore.
  • Material in which copyright has expired (which takes a very long time: the general rule in the UK is the lifetime of the (last surviving) author and then another 70 years, but this varies, and some works are protected for even longer). You should always try to verify that a work has entered the UK public domain by virtue of copyright expiry, rather than simply assuming this.

In this context the term 'public domain' refers specifically to material that is no longer, or was never, protected by copyright: not to material that has merely been made available to the public (or become public knowledge).

What is fair dealing?

This concept is undefined in the legislation but, broadly, means that your use must not be excessive or otherwise conflict unreasonably with a rights owner's legitimate interests (e.g. by depriving them of income) or normal exploitation of their work. To benefit from a fair dealing exception, your use must be fair-minded and reasonable in the context and not detrimental to the interests of the copyright owner. For example, it is likely to be harder to demonstrate 'fair dealing' with a high-resolution commercial stock photograph, than with a low-resolution copy of an image for which the rights owner would not normally expect to charge reproduction fees.

Note that UK law does not provide a general 'fair use' defence, so - as well as being fair dealing, your use must also be for the particular purpose specified by the applicable exception(s) - such as 'illustration for instruction' (teaching use), or quotation.

What is 'illustration for instruction'?

This is the fair dealing copyright exception that relates specifically to acts of teaching for non-commercial purposes, which applies irrespective of whether such teaching is face-to-face, or delivered digitally via a secure, password-protected Virtual Learning Environment. Generally, you do not need to make edits to your teaching slides as a result of recording your lecture or creating a screencast, unless you plan to show entire audiovisual works.

What constitutes sufficient acknowledgement?

Identifying any third party sources used in teaching materials helps your students to find and cite these sources themselves, while omitting attribution would be unfair to the creator(s) of the protected work(s), unless they are unknown. To rely on a copyright exception, acknowledgement of third party copyright-protected work must be 'sufficient', which is defined in the legislation as 'an acknowledgement identifying the work in question by its title or other description, and identifying the author unless

(a) in the case of a published work, it is published anonymously;

(b) in the case of an unpublished work, it is not possible for a person to ascertain the identity of the author by reasonable inquiry'.

  • Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, section 178.

If copying or reusing material you have found online, providing the name or URL of the website where you located the material is unlikely, in itself, to constitute sufficient acknowledgement.

Are there any differences between the physical and virtual classroom?

Generally, exceptions that help to support teaching in the physical classroom apply equally to teaching delivered digitally or virtually. However, this is not the case for the screening of films and television programmes for educational purposes on campus, so the screening of entire audiovisual works (with the exception of very short indivisible works used under the 'fair dealing' conditions specified above) must not be captured within lecture recordings created for asynchronous delivery.

Generally, it is preferable to link to audiovisual content, such as programmes and clips that you might normally show within a lecture on campus, rather than attempting to stream these within recordings of teaching delivered digitally. Programmes and clips accessed via the Box of Broadcasts service may be embedded directly within the Virtual Learning Environment using the embed codes provided, for non-commercial, educational use.

It is permissible to link to third party YouTube videos as long as you avoid sharing clips that you know to be infringing, i.e. unauthorised copies of third party copyright-protected content. Sharing third party videos that have not been uploaded by or with the authorisation of copyright owners carries other risks, including that videos could be taken down without notice or 'monetised' with adverts placed before or during a video, which might be unsuitable for teaching purposes. Linking to a video you know to be infringing can itself constitute copyright infringement.

Interactive Q&A

This resource provides answers to some frequently asked copyright questions about the use of third party copyright-protected material for teaching purposes. Note that you are not expected to read every answer in detail; instead, you are encouraged to focus on the questions that are likely to be most relevant to your teaching. Clicking on any question will link you directly to the answer to that question.

Download the Copyright and Teaching Interactive Q&A as a PowerPoint Slide Show

For the best experience, it is recommended that you open this slide show using the desktop version of Microsoft PowerPoint. If you do not have the desktop version of Microsoft PowerPoint, a PDF version is also available.

To navigate through the slides and return to the table of questions, please use the arrows found in the bottom right corner of the answer slides - do not simply scroll through the document linearly. Please report any difficulties viewing the slides to the Copyright & Compliance Officer.

See also
Information on face to face teaching on campus
Things to do now
Open the copyright and teaching Interactive Q&A for PowerPoint or view the PDF version (see details below)

Contact the Copyright & Compliance Officer