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Avoiding copyright violations in educational presentations

Perhaps, like many healthcare professionals, you’ve given multimedia presentations at national conferences; perhaps you’ve recorded them, too. Did you know you might have violated federal copyright law by doing these things?

Many presenters are unfamiliar with copyright regulations. They assume presentations given for educational purposes rather than profit can’t possibly constitute a violation. But presenters violate copyright law unwittingly every day at conferences (and elsewhere). This article explains copyright law and offers tips on how to avoid violating it in educational settings, including healthcare conferences.

What copyright law protects

Copyright is a legal protection for those who create works of art, literature, and informational resources (including textbooks). Only the person who owns the copyright has the legal power to determine how the work will be used.

To be protected by copyright law, a work must be tangible, creative, and original.

  • Tangible: This requirement is satisfied easily if the work is “fixated” on paper, a disk, or a recording. Lectures that aren’t recorded can’t be copyrighted because they’re not tangible and fixated. In today’s electronic age, nonfixated lectures are rare.
  • Original: Most works are original even if they’re built on an earlier work, such as previous editions. Thus, second, third, and later editions are considered original works.
  • Creative: The creativity requirement is satisfied as long as the work contains more than simple data or information. Be aware that images created by machines (such as electrocardiograms and X-rays) can’t be copyrighted.

Copyright protections are fairly broad. For instance, most graphics, photographs, and diagrams typically used in educational presentations are protected. As a presenter, you’re responsible for ensuring that you have permission to use anything you display or that your use of these works falls into one of the
legal exceptions to copyright protection. If you own the work, you may use it whenever and however you wish. If, on the other hand, you use images from textbooks, websites, or even your employer, you must get permission to use these; otherwise, you’re violating copyright law.

Understanding the education exception

Exceptions do exist. The education exception allows you to use media in your educational presentation, provided the presentation is given in a classroom setting, isn’t recorded for later availability online, and meets the tests for brevity, spontaneity, and cumulative effect.


  • The brevity test means you can use only a limited amount of the copyrighted work, typically interpreted to mean one image from one article or book.
  • The spontaneity test means you can use the image just once. If you use it again, you must get permission.
  • The cumulative effect test means you can’t take one image or section from multiple works by the same author.

If your presentation will be available online, the education exception doesn’t apply unless you meet certain additional requirements found in the Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act of 2002. (See TEACH Act requirements by clicking the PDF icon above.)

If you’re taken to court

Unfortunately, these requirements are subject to interpretation by a federal court. So if you’re wondering whether your use is within the exceptions, the answer is a definite “maybe.” If a case goes to court, the judge bases his or her decision on personal discretion; it’s extremely unlikely the identical situation will have arisen before to set a precedent. Bottom line: It’s almost impossible to predict the outcome in court.

As a general rule, if you believe you’ve met the exceptions, post a copyright statement describing where you obtained the media. This helps prevent the appearance that you’re claiming it as your own work.

Getting permission

To get permission to use a copyrighted work, contact the copyright owner. If the work is an image you found online, contact the website owner. Remember—just because something is available online doesn’t mean it’s not copyrighted. If the work is from an article or a textbook, contact the publishing company, which likely will want detailed information on the extent to which you’ll be using it, including the number of people in the audience and how many times you’ll be giving the presentation. The publisher may charge a fee to use the work. Be sure to save all correspondence with the publisher.

Given all the restrictions, it’s often simpler (and less expensive) to use your own work or ensure that anything you use is free of copyright limitations. If you decide to use your own work, be aware that you’ll own the copyright on it and others will have to ask your permission to use it. If you created the work in the course of your employment, check your employment contract to make sure that you, and not your employer, own it.

Finding copyright-free images

Multiple websites offer images and videos free of most copyright limitations. These works typically fall under the Creative Commons umbrella, meaning their owners allow distribution and certain uses at no charge. Typically, you may use these works as freely as you wish, as long as you cite the copyright owner. Although different types of Creative Commons licenses are available, many copyright owners choose the attribution license, which lets others use, display, and distribute the work if they agree to cite the owner.

Also, the federal government makes some health-related images and other works available on certain websites, such as those of the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such media can be used for educational purposes without permission.

Remember—there’s no clear-cut rule on copyright violations. To play it safe, don’t use anything that’s clearly in violation, such as an entire presentation someone else created. When it comes to using images, videos, and audio clips, keep in mind that the shorter, the better. Always credit the copyright owner. And when in doubt, use something else instead of risking a copyright violation.

The information in this article does not constitute legal advice.

Selected references

Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act of 2002. 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 – 810 (2012).

U.S. Copyright Office. Copyright Notice (Circular 3); 2013. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. www.copyright.gov/circs/circ03.pdf. Accessed February 26, 2014.

Click here for a list of references.

Lori A. Catalano is an assistant professor of clinical nursing at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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