I am an undergraduate lecturer. I have been bothered by this question lately.

I never and never want to claim that what I know, or even what I discover, is mine. Also, things that I discover, small or huge, more likely have been discovered before by someone, but of course I never claim that I am the first one to discover them, and I hope I will not in the future too, no matter how huge it is.

I really want to share what I know/discover to as many people as possible, especially my students, and I won't make them pay me for that, since I've been paid enough and they have paid more than how much I can imagine to the university.

What I know or discover usually is based on the books that I bought and read. The books are protected by the law of course, but then I know students can't afford them, a situation which may (usually) lead them to pirate stuffs. I make and share notes of the books, but what's the difference? Sure I put them in my own words, but still the notes are based on the books. This is just an example with books. Papers, products, etc are different, but the "sharing limit" works similar, perhaps?

The problem is, then, I am a bit afraid of this law about filesharing, copyright, IP, or something like that, which makes me think that we do have limits in order to freely educate students. I just feel that does not sound right.

What are your opinions about this situation of a teacher/lecturer? Will there always be people who "buy" knowledge/products and share them freely and in medium or slowly reaching larger scale, without claiming anything or making money of it? I feel like the limit of sharing exists and exists strongly and hard to break. :/

  • 1
    Hi, this is an interesting question and I hope you get some nice answers. Before that, did you put the 'independent researcher' tag by mistake? Seems inappropriate. – user153812 Aug 10 at 16:19

For actual legal advice, you should consult with your institution's legal department.

Having said that, in most countries, the legal concept of Fair Use protects you from getting in any copyright trouble for normal educational activities. There are limits to fair use (you're not allowed to photocopy a textbook and pass out copies to all your students), but making lecture notes that are based on a copyrighted textbook should be fine, as long as they are tailored to the lectures you are actually giving, and not presented as "here's my summary of the textbook so you don't have to buy it." The exact line where fair use ends is hard to define, and would be up to a judge's discretion if it got that far, but in practice, as long as you don't do anything blatant, you should be fine.

There was a time, around 50 or so years ago, that there were fairly broad exceptions to copyright law for educators. Fair use was much broader then as well. But the invention of the Xerox(TM) machine changed that. Prior to that it was hard to make copies, especially in quantity. However, once it became easy and cheap, the copyright holders (Text book and other publishers) pressed legislators to tighten up the laws. In some places, the limits are quite wide, still, in others not so much and they are closing fast.

While in the US, Fair Use may seem to protect you, copyright holders can still sue, and often do, even though they are likely to use. The threat of a suit is, in their view, a deterrent to even legal copying. While the law may be on your side it doesn't help much if you have to face a lawsuit to have a judge rule in your favor.

However, as an educator, you have an additional responsibility around intellectual property. It isn't enough that you give them the facts. You also need to help them learn how to find the facts themselves.

For this reason alone, you should be very clear to cite anything you use whether you quote it or simply paraphrase it. Provide a citation. This lets the reader, your student, follow up and see the more complete context of what you have given them.

In general, you have to follow copyright law wherever you are and it varies. You can't, in most places, download copyrighted material unless a license is provided. Making multiple copies of even small amounts of text may be illegal or not.

The fact that you are unlikely to be "caught" and therefore it "seems" ok, isn't a good lesson to give your students.

On the other hand, if you properly own something or have permission to use it, you can loan it to others - books for example. You can even sell it - physical copies. But that isn't the same as making additional copies even to give away.

But don't forget that ideas are free to use. If you learn something from a book, you can share those ideas freely with anyone. It is best to use your own words (paraphrase) and provide a citation. If you don't cite the original you could possibly be accused of plagiarism. Even when it isn't true, the claim itself can be damaging.

Copyright protects words and similar things (images, music), not ideas. Patent law puts some restrictions on some sorts of ideas (inventions) but that is unlikely to concern you here.

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