I’m going to jump right into the nitty gritty on this one, because it’s on my mind and because I had to deal with it recently while I was doing work for one of my clients. Let me give you a bit of backstory:
For some of my wonderful clients, I provide the service of searching for copyright violations of their Teachers Pay Teachers products and then sending cease-and-desist emails to the violators on their behalf. This is a process that sometimes gets a bit involved, and I’ve even had to work with one of my clients’ lawyers for violators who weren’t responding to (or even opening) my many emails. When I most recently logged into my client’s “legal” email account (A.K.A. I made a Gmail account called legal.myclientsbusinessname for this purpose), I saw the following response from someone I’d emailed about her school’s website having posted one of my client’s Teachers Pay Teachers products:
So-and-so is no longer part of our staff.
(The teacher’s name is omitted for obvious reasons.) I just kind of stared at it for a minute, dumbfounded. The person I’d emailed, after searching the school’s website, was the woman listed as the Technology Coordinator. This was her response to my email. The Technology Coordinator’s response.
It took everything in me not to hit reply and type,
YOU STILL HAVE TO TAKE IT DOWN!
I checked the URL to see if she’d taken down the PDF, even though her email obviously didn’t indicate that she did, and as I expected my client’s product was still available via the URL. To give you an idea of my actual response (and not what I wished I could say, as demonstrated above), here’s similar version of what I said:
While so-and-so may no longer be a part of your staff, my client is still the copyright owner of that PDF, so you and your school are violating copyright law by having it available on your school’s website. I emailed you because you’re listed as the Technology Coordinator, so you seemed to be the most appropriate person to email. If you can’t take down the PDF, then please give me the name and email address of someone on your school’s staff who can.
I was literally astonished that this woman thought that because the teacher who uploaded the file was no longer working at the school, she had no obligation to do anything about it. Copyright is a real law. It exists for a reason. And if someone emails you telling you that you’re violating their copyright ownership, you have to do something about it if you want to avoid a lawsuit.
Update: I decided that I need to state, before going any further, that I’m sure I violated copyright at one point or another when I was in the classroom. As I discuss at the end of this post, training on copyright law seems to be almost nonexistent in schools, so I would have to guess that I made a mistake somewhere along the line. Although the inspiration for this post was borne out of frustration, I don’t mean for it to be an attack on teachers. I intend for it to be a learning tool–albeit a basic one–to help teachers avoid infringing on the rights of Teacher-Authors when they purchase products from Teachers Pay Teachers.
All of that being said, let’s go over some basics, shall we?
What is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)?
According to the U.S. Copyright Office, the DMCA was signed into law by President Clinton in 1998, and it has five titles, or sections. These titles cover a myriad of copyright-related issues that the digital era brought forth, hence the reason the law needed to be made. Additionally, the DMCA brought the U.S. into compliance with two treaties of the World Intellectual Property Organization. More or less, the DMCA defines the laws with which Online Service Providers must comply in order to prevent copyright infringement. Teachers Pay Teachers is a website that primarily sells digital goods; hence, the DMCA is extremely important to sellers on the site so that the resources they create are protected.
What is copyright infringement?
Great question! Let me try to simplify the definition given by the U.S. Copyright Office:
Anyone who violates any of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner … or of the author … is an infringer of the copyright or right of the author, as the case may be.
Copyright infringement really comes into play when someone is illegally sharing a Teacher-Author’s resource on their website…for free. It doesn’t really need to be mentioned, but this also applies if someone is trying to sell a product created by a Teachers Pay Teachers seller. Teacher-Authors are trying to earn extra income off of their Teachers Pay Teachers stores, and for many of them, it’s actually their sole source of income. When a school or a person uploads a Teacher-Author’s product to a website where anyone in the world can download it, you’re pulling revenue away from that person for the product they worked hard to create and perfect. Let me reiterate: They created the product. This is why on many of the products you buy on Teachers Pay Teachers, every single page has the copyright symbol, the name of the Teacher-Author or the store name, and (possibly) the year it was created. (You may not see this on products from newer sellers who might not realize that this is a step they need to take.)
Another point I want to make is that it’s copyright infringement when you buy a product for yourself and then share it with other teachers for free. This is essentially the same thing as putting it up on your school’s website for all to download, except you’re sharing it with all of the teachers in your department or on your team–or maybe even in your whole district! We Teacher-Authors have heard horror stories of teachers creating Google Drive folders where they’ll upload the resources they’ve purchased from Teachers Pay Teachers for anyone with access to the folder to download and use. We’ve also seen teachers tag friends in the comments of a Teacher-Author’s post about their product on social media saying things like, “I’ll buy this and then I’ll share it with you” or “Let’s split the cost of this.” This is copyright infringement. I’ll come back to it later, but there are legal ways to share with your teacher friends.
And yet another point I want to touch on is that maybe you did upload a Teacher-Author’s resource to your school’s website or to your class blog, but you were trying to provide it for your students–maybe for when they’re absent, or maybe so they can refer back to it for homework or studying. It’s innocent. You don’t even realize it’s a copyright violation. But it is. When you post something online, even if it’s for your students…if everyone can access it, then it’s a copyright violation.
What does it mean when I make a purchase on Teachers Pay Teachers?
How do you know if you’ve violated a seller’s copyright?
What happens when you violate the DMCA?
As far as I understand, penalties for violating DMCA can range anywhere from fines to jail time, I suppose depending on the severity of the infringement. Many times, people try reaching out on their own–or they have their assistants or virtual assistants do it on their behalf. For those who can afford it, they might hire an intellectual property lawyer to reach out and threaten legal action if the product is not taken down.
In the worst case of copyright infringement I have seen thus far, one school district had 13 (t-h-i-r-t-e-e-n!!!!!!) of my client’s products up on their website, as well as numerous products from a gaggle of other Teachers Pay Teachers sellers. It took several lawyers contacting both the school district and the hosting company threatening legal action to get it all taken down–and it took a while. They were ignoring most contact attempts and refusing to comply for quite a long time.
It needs to be noted, too, that your administration may discipline you for uploading a Teachers Pay Teachers product to the school or district server. Unfortunately, this has happened once or twice in the past when I’ve sent DMCA take-down notices, and in fact, one teacher who was disciplined by her administration lashed back at my client. Since that incident, I do my very best to send take-down notices to the technology department (which, I think, usually either takes down the PDF without alerting the teacher or handles alerting the teacher on their own without involving administration) or to the website host, but every once in a while, the only contact information to be found is the principal or superintendent. So please, please, please: When you purchase a resource on Teachers Pay Teachers, look for that TOU page or section and read it so you can be in compliance and avoid getting in trouble with your administration.
What can I do to prevent copyright infringement?
For starters, don’t upload someone else’s work to your school or class website unless you have explicit permission from that person. Read their TOU, as I described above, and learn what you can and cannot do with a resource that you purchase and download from Teachers Pay Teachers. If you need to make the resource available for your students online, then make sure it’s password protected so that only your students can access it (if this is in the Teacher-Author’s TOU and/or you have explicit permission from the Teacher-Author). If colleagues of yours want the resource, too, then you can buy additional licenses for it at a discount and have them reimburse you for it. Teachers Pay Teachers also offers licensing options for entire school districts.
Why is there so little understanding of copyright law in schools?
I wish I had an answer to this, but I have no idea. I’m trying to think back on my time in the classroom, and I can’t remember a training on copyright in my professional career. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, because it could have…but I don’t recall that happening. I vaguely remember a copyright lesson in one of my classes in undergrad or grad school. It just doesn’t seem to be addressed, and when it is, it’s focused on hard goods–books and textbooks. The DMCA has been in effect for almost 20 years, so digital teaching resources have been around for a long time now and aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. ALL schools truly need to start educating their teachers about copyright law and its importance in education. We teach our students to be mindful, law-abiding citizens; teachers and administrators need to do the same.
Do me a favor: Share this post with your colleagues and your administrators. Let’s start making moves toward reducing copyright violation and supporting our fellow teachers by legally using and sharing their work.
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This post was most recently updated in March 2019.