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What Is Copyright and How Does It Apply to Students?

By: Christopher Heer and Toba Cooper | Last updated:January 18, 2019

Copyright is the federal legal protection afforded to literary, dramatic, artistic, and musical works, sound recordings, performances, and communications signals. In Canada, copyright is protected through the federal government's Copyright Act. As a legal regime, copyright provides the work's rightful owner the legal right to exclude all others from exploiting a copyrighted work. Effectively the law gives copyright owners grounds to demand that they be paid for the reproduction, publication and distribution of their work.

Students encounter and engage with copyrighted works every day. It is likely that nearly all of the books, presentations, movies, and digital and hard copy materials that students use in their classroom, research and in their studies are copyrighted materials.

Because copyright protects most of the works that students engage with and rely upon, It is important that students understand the basics of copyright law, what constitutes infringement and to know when exceptions to the copyright owner's usual rights under copyright apply.

Reproducing a substantial portion of a copyrighted work without permission is infringement UNLESS an exception applies

Unless an exception to the law applies (like fair dealing, discussed below), making copies of a copyrighted work without permission is called copyright infringement. Being caught breaking the law by making copies of a work without permission can carry serious legal and financial consequences.

Fair Dealing – an exception to copyright law

Section 29 of the Copyright Act sets out certain circumstances in which others may reproduce or otherwise utilize a copyrighted work without express permission from the copyright owner. If these circumstances exist, reproduction without authorization does not constitute infringement and will be permissible. This is called fair dealing and is very relevant to students' use of copyrighted works.

When fair dealing applies

The Copyright Act permits the unauthorized reproduction and use of a copyrighted work for the following purposes: research, private study, education, satire, parody, criticism, review or news reporting. So long as the reproduction of the work is for one of these enumerated purposes and the dealing is "fair", the unauthorized reproduction will not constitute infringement.

Accordingly, many of a student's uses of copyrighted works will be permissible under the fair dealing laws. After all, copyright law is not out to limit education and intellectual growth. On the contrary – the important exception of fair dealing has been written into the law precisely to permit and encourage the "user" (in this case the student) to engage with, reference and even reproduce aspects of, or whole works in their pursuit of education, research or private study.

In Canada, fair dealing is a users' right that is interpreted broadly, particularly in the context of education, research and private study.

Assessing whether your dealing with a work is fair

The following considerations are relevant to assessing whether dealing is "fair":

  1. the purpose of the dealing (the reason for the unauthorized reproduction). Is the reproduction for purposes of citing a famous author or expert in a research paper? If so, it will almost certainly considered fair.
  2. the character of the dealing (how the work is dealt with – were many copies made, or only the amount absolutely necessary). Have you reproduced one thousand copies when one would have sufficed? If so, this may not be the fairest dealing of the work.
  3. the amount of the dealing (how much of the work is used ) Could unauthorized reproduction of a lesser amount of the work have sufficed? Reproduction of a trivial portion of the work will not constitute infringement in the first place.
  4. alternatives to the dealing. If there is a non-copyrighted equivalent of the work that could have been used instead of the copyrighted work that would be seen to be more fair.
  5. the nature of the work; and
  6. the effect of the dealing. If the reproduced work is likely to compete with the market of the original work, this may suggest that the dealing is not fair).

It is important for students to consider these factors when choosing to reproduce a work without authorization to determine whether their use of a work will be protected by the fair dealing exception.

The term of copyright and the public domain

In Canada, copyright subsists in a work for 50 years plus the life of the author. When copyright expires, works are said to enter the public domain and any person may legally copy the work without infringing the rights of the owner. Accordingly, works in the public domain are free to be used without permission and without restriction in the educational context and beyond. While there is no legal requirement to attribute works in the public domain to their creators, doing so is said to be an important part of maintaining academic integrity.

The difference between infringement and plagiarism

As explained above, copyright infringement occurs when you reproduce someone else's work without authorization. Infringement carries legal consequences such as potential liability for monetary damages. Plagiarism is the act of claiming attribution for a work you did not author, or using someone else's work without proper attribution. It is possible to avoid copyright infringement by reproducing a work under the fair dealing exeception but still be caught for plagiarism for inadequate attribution.

Some additional considerations for students

While virtually all educational uses of a copyrighted work is likely to render the use "fair", students should be acutely aware of copyright law, how it works and when it does and doesn't apply. Just because you are permitted to copy a work for educational purposes under the purview of an exception to the law does not mean that copyright no longer applies. Remember that where an exception for unauthorized reproduction might apply for educational purposes, the same exception may not apply for commercial use of the work.

Students may also create works that can be protected by copyright. Students should be aware of how and when copyright subsists in a work to know when they can exclude others from exploiting their works without permission.

For more information about when copyright applies to your original works, please visit our copyright FAQ.

Related resources:

Copyright FAQ