One of the most common questions that I encounter during media production trainings with educators is, “Am I allowed to use copyrighted material in my project?” From using John Williams’ classic “dark side” theme music in Star Wars for the opening credits of a digital story about the Hayward Fault to bringing in an excerpt from Ken Burns’ Jazz… to even using random images found in a Google search, the kinds of uses I hear range in a variety of ways… but the question is consistent: Can I use this?

The concern is serious for educators who do not want to get in trouble with their school administrators or perhaps the district office. They also want to be able to tell their students clearly what the rules are and prepare them for a future of media authoring with ethical practices.

Well, to all of you educators, the answer is yes, but it’s not so simple. According to The Center for Social Media’s Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education, there are ways that educators and students can use copyrighted material without getting permission from the copyright owner. However, the way to determine whether a certain piece of copyrighted media can be used is a bit interpretive.

Copyright law has several features that permit quotations from copyrighted works without permission or payment, under certain conditions. Fair use is the most important of these features.

So what is considered Fair Use?
Copyright law does not exactly specify how to apply fair use, and that gives the fair use doctrine a flexibility that works to the advantage of users. Creative needs and practices differ with the field, with technology, and with time. Rather than following a specific formula, lawyers and judges decide whether an unlicensed use of copyrighted material is “fair” according to a “rule of reason.”

Here’s a great video from the Center for Social Media’s website that explains fair use for media literacy educators —

In review, The Center of Social Media explains the importance of examining the use of each piece of copyrighted material by asking two key questions:

• Did the unlicensed use “transform” the material taken from the copyrighted work by using it for a different purpose than that of the original, or did it just repeat the work for the same intent and value as the original?

• Was the material taken appropriate in kind and amount, considering the nature of the copyrighted work and of the use?

If the answers to these two questions are “yes,” a court is likely to find a use fair. Because that is true, such a use is unlikely to be challenged in the first place.

To understand the guidelines directly, please view The Center for Social Media’s Code of Best Practices for Media Literacy Education. KQED has also aggregated some great resources on our Copyright and Media Education page. Also, The Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island has created a set of curriculum materials for teaching and understanding copyright and fair use.


Matthew Williams

Matthew Williams is a filmmaker and media educator who has recently transplanted to Oakland from Los Angeles. He believes that you are what you eat and feels everyone should have a multitude of dietary options for self-realization. Matthew is the Educational Technologist at KQED.

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