Understanding copyright law

This article explains the basics of copyright law so that you can explore and share multimedia e-learning resources with confidence.

This article is for TEACHERS. 📚🍎 


Now that you can upload multimedia resources to Engage, you’ll be opening up a whole new way of interacting with your students, and adding a new perspective to their subjects. 🌟💁

With digital education tools, the opportunities for learning are endless – within the confines of the law, of course. The information below will help you to  make full use of the benefits of e-learning while also navigating the copyright laws that apply to certain types of content. ✅

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property. Copyright protects creative, original ‘works of the mind’ that have been expressed in physical format. 📘📼🎧 Copyright does not protect ideas. 💡

Which works are protected by copyright?

Creative works that are covered by copyright include:

  • Literary, musical, artistic, architectural works
  • Published editions
  • Film
  • Photography
  • Sculpture
  • Recordings
  • Broadcasts
  • Computer programs
  • Databases

How long does copyright last?

The period of copyright depends on the country where the work was produced, as well as what type of work it is. 

For literary, musical or artistic works (excluding photographs):

  • In the UK, copyright is for the lifetime of the author + 70 years from the end of the year in which the author dies.
  • In the USA, copyright is for the lifetime of the author + 70 years.
  • In South Africa and Kenya, copyright is for the lifetime of the author + 50 years from the end of the year in which the author dies.
  • For works of joint authorship, the above copyright periods apply in relation to the last surviving author.
  • For works published posthumously (i.e. after the author dies), the copyright period generally begins at the end of the year in which it is first published.

Audiovisual works, photographs, sound recordings and broadcasts are usually protected for 50 or 70 years (depending on the country) from the date of publication/ production/ broadcast. As copyright law can differ between countries, you will need to check the relevant country’s legislation on a case-by-case basis.

What happens when copyright expires?

When the copyright term ends, the work goes into the public domain, which means that it is no longer protected by copyright and it may be used and reproduced freely (with proper acknowledgement). 

It’s important to note that the relevant country’s copyright law must be followed, even if you are based in another country where the copyright term is different. For example, George Orwell, whose famous works Animal Farm 🐖and Nineteen Eighty-Four 👁 were published in the UK, died in 1950. This means that, according to UK copyright law (details above), his work will enter the public domain – for everyone, worldwide – in January 2021, 70 years after his death. Note that this does not mean that his works entered the public domain 20 years earlier in South Africa than the UK.

What is a Creative Commons licence? 🤔
A Creative Commons licence can be applied to a copyrighted work in order for copyright holders to share their creative and academic work with very few or no restrictions.  

If a work has been licensed under Creative Commons, you may use the work but there may be restrictions, so be sure to check what these may be and comply accordingly.

Copyright in the classroom

Copyright law applies to everyone, but it can get kind of complicated in an educational context where additional resources are needed to supplement textbooks and worksheets. 

When you share resources with your students in Engage, you will need to consider each resource you wish to upload and evaluate whether you are legally allowed to use it. Pirated content (e.g. a PDF of an e-textbook, an MP4 of a movie, or a recording from the radio, where the rights owners did not give consent) is illegal, but there are many other materials you can access and share with students, such as:

  • Any audio file, video file, or document that you have made yourself.
  • Any work that is in the public domain and not subject to copyright.
  • Any work that falls under a Creative Commons licence (subject to possible restrictions).
  • Any copyrighted work for which you have received written permission (from the copyright holder) to reproduce/use.

💡 Did you know that Siyavula e-textbooks in Engage are free and openly licensed? This means that you can download and adapt the material for your own purposes.

We also have many other free resources for students and teachers. Check out our collections of free content.

Need help? Use the live chat in the bottom right corner of your screen or email us at help@snapplify.com.