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Copyright: A Guide

Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education

This code of best practice was developed by a number of nonprofit think tanks, educational institutions, and attorneys. It distinguishes sharply between media literacy education and the general use of media in education. Specifically, media literacy education (e.g. film studies) features the analytical attitude that teachers and learners, working together, adopt toward the media objects they study. The foundation of effective media analysis is the recognition that:

  • all media messages are constructed
  • each medium has different characteristics and strengths and a unique language of construction
  • media messages are produced for particular purposes
  • all media messages contain embedded values and points of view
  • people use their individual skills, beliefs, and experiences to construct their own meanings from media messages
  • media and media messages can influence beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, and the democratic process

According to this code, the four factors of fair use may be applied in instances of media literacy education to assess the amount of media that may be used in instances of media education such as in the online environment. "Educators should choose material that is germane to the project or topic, using only what is necessary for the educational goal or purpose for which it is being made. In some cases, this will mean using a clip or excerpt; in other cases, the whole work is needed."


DMCA exemptions announced

The Librarian of Congress in 2021 issued exemptions to anti-circumvention rules in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that apply for 3 years. Here are the exemptions of immediate relevance:

Excerpts of motion pictures (including television shows and videos) for criticism or comment:

Users may circumvent in order to make short portions of the motion picture for purposes of criticism or comment in:

  1. documentary film-making, or other films where the clip is used for parody or for its biographical or historically significant nature;
  2. noncommercial videos; or
  3. nonfiction multimedia e-books;

Users may circumvent in order to make short portions of the motion picture for educational purposes:

  1. by college and university faculty and students or K-12 educators and students for the purpose of criticism, comment, teaching, or scholarship;
  2. by faculty of MOOCs offered by accredited nonprofit educational institutions (must also meet TEACH Act requirements) in film studies or other courses requiring close analysis of film and media excerpts; or
  3. by educators and participants in nonprofit digital and media literacy programs offered by libraries, museums, and other nonprofit entities with an educational mission, in the course of face-to-face instructional activities (but limited to circumvention using screen capture technology).

Exemption applies to motion pictures on lawfully made and acquired DVDs protected by Content Scramble System, Blu-ray videos protected by Advanced Access Control System, or digital transmissions protected by a technological measure.

A collection of films already licensed for streaming at Muhlenberg College

Selected streaming outlets

Fair Use

Every fair use consideration of the use of a film examines four factors:

Purpose (educational, nonprofit, research, criticism)

Nature (fact or fiction film)

Amount (amount needed for the specific purpose)

Effect on the market (e.g. availability of streaming licenses)


The TEACH Act, Section 110(2) of the copyright code, presents another option for instructors hoping to include portions of films in their learning management systems. The TEACH Act permits the inclusion of films as online course materials in "reasonable and limited portions." 

Who owns the copyright in a film?

Traditionally, whoever exercises creative control over a project owns the copyright. So one would imagine that the film director would own the copyright to a film. That is true, unless (and this often happens) a film studio (think Universal Studies, Walt Disney, Warner Bros., etc.) draws up a "work made for hire" (WMFH) agreement with the director. In that case, the studio would own the copyright, and the director would simply be paid for her services in accordance with the contract.