Can I make copies of a magazine article for my class?

It depends. Although there are specific, limited exceptions in the law for educators, they’re generally related to playing videos or music, or displaying images, in class. Unfortunately, there is no clear and broad right to make copies of articles or book excerpts for classroom use. That isn’t to say all copying is forbidden. Rather it means certain copying is permitted as a “fair use,” depending on the facts and circumstances of each use.

The section of the Copyright Act that describes fair use does say that “multiple copies for classroom use” are examples of fair uses, but that doesn’t mean that every single instance of classroom use is fair (just like newspapers can’t automatically claim that anything they do with a copyrighted work is a fair use). But there’s a range of classroom uses that might and might not be considered fair.

On one end of the spectrum are coursepacks – a collection of articles and excerpts selected by the instructor and which students are directed to purchase. Following a series of cases (e.g. the Princeton University Press case, and the Basic Books case), it is settled law that assembling and distributing coursepacks requires permission.

On the other end of the spectrum is copying a single news article. Consider the fair use factors outlined here. What is the nature and purpose of the use? If you’re a teacher and you’re making copies for your class, then it’s a non-commercial and educational purpose; two things courts generally view favorably. What is the nature of the original work? It’s a factual report. How much of the work are you copying? Only one article out of the entire magazine. Have you harmed the market for the original work? Only minimally, by not requiring your students to each purchase a copy of the whole news source.

There are no strict rules as to how much is too much. In a recent case over the extent to which Georgia State University instructors could share reading materials with students over an e-reserves system without seeking permission, the appeals court upheld a decision that the copying could be a fair use, depending on the length of the works excerpted. However, it instructed the District Court to engage in a case-by-case analysis of the copied materials, rather than applying a rigid rule, such as “no more than one chapter” or “no more than 10% of the book.”

Figuring out whether a particular case of copying for the classroom is appropriate can be difficult and with few clear answers. A number of universities offer guidance to instructors to help decide whether permissions are needed for a given excerpt. Some examples include the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning, the University of Minnesota’s Libraries, the Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center, and the American University Library.