Copyright infringement, teachers, schools and victims – the issues
The pivot towards home learning during the global pandemic saw a proliferation in the amount of copyright infringement by teachers copying content onto school websites. Some of it happened unwittingly, but in many cases, professional educators should have known better. During the lockdown, some primary and secondary school websites became overloaded with copies of whole books, banks of commercial worksheets, curriculum textbooks, digital schemes of work, and gigabytes of data copied from educational websites.
What school staff are often not aware of is the devastating effect copying can have on an online educational business, sometimes crippling it to the point where it ceases trading. Perhaps only now are we starting to see the impact this had on the educational publishing economy.
Strangely, for a profession that seeks to instil positive values and ethics, a minority of teachers hold a mistaken belief that they are exempt from the copyright laws that exist to protect the creative community and original content providers. Worse still, some teachers rename or rebrand vast amounts of material copied from the internet and present it as their own – which is surprising given how strict and sensitive schools are towards pupils who are caught plagiarising.
So we’ve written this guide specifically for teachers and senior leaders – as a cautionary tale – to explain exactly what happens if you illegally copy large amounts of content onto your school’s website. Readers may be surprised!
The guide below is direct, to the point and personal, in the hope that it drills home what happens if someone in your school copies significant amounts of material from the internet and deposits it onto your school website; what happens to the victim of that copying; and what the subsequent risks are for you as a teacher, and your school.
What happens when you copy material from the internet onto your school’s website
You can cause extensive and in some cases, permanent damage to the website business or the person you copied from
- Websites cost money to operate. Even a non-profit has to pay for hosting, and the bigger and more successful the site, the more it will cost to run. Educational websites typically work on sales, advertising, affiliate or subscription models to get by.
- If you copy a website’s content, you are copying their product. That’s especially the case if the content is free to view. Free content is there to generate revenues from views, advertising or affiliate marketing. By copying it onto your school’s website, you are pirating their product in the same way as pirating a film, music or satellite sports stream.
- Search engines, such as Google and Bing see school websites as trustworthy. They give a boost to trustworthy websites, such as school websites. So, if you copy lots of text from an educational site that you liked onto your school’s website, anyone searching for that content on Google will end up on your school’s site. Why? Because Google thinks your school site is trustworthy, authoritative and high quality. And if you’ve made it look as if you wrote the copied content, or your school produced it, people searching on Google will never find the educational site that wrote and owns the content because the content has been copied onto your school’s website, and Google trusts your school more. In copying that content, you’ve abused the extra trust that Google bestows onto school websites.
- Sometimes Google, because it believes schools are trustworthy, will even decide that your school is more likely to have written the stolen material, and will instead penalise the website that you copied it from by delisting it from search results. This is called canonicalization.
- The effect on the victim of copied content is devastating. If the business’ website isn’t found easily on Google, that website won’t receive visitors. Fewer visitors means fewer sales, subscriptions, advertising revenues or affiliate purchases. All of that adds up to a business in dire trouble. And, paradoxically, if the website ceases trading, there will be no more content like the resources you found useful enough to want to copy onto your school’s website in the first place. Your copying kills creativity.
- Schools and teachers are often unaware of just how much pain copying content causes. To illustrate this, here are the hoops an educational website writer has to jump through to keep on the right side of Google, Bing, advertisers and affiliates. If you’ve copied their content, to have any chance of surviving and reclaiming their content, victims of copying have to maintain a vast paper trail of evidence.
- The victim is also forced to act fast. This means dropping everything to deal with the content you’ve copied onto your school website. Here are the actions the victim has to take immediately:
- Trace the contact details for the school, the teacher, the document creator (if an online PDF or Word document), the MAT/LEA/umbrella company, the school’s website host’s abuse contact, and the WHOIS details for the school’s website domain from ICANN.
- Send out (and secure acknowledgement of receipt of) a copyright infringement / DMCA takedown notice to all of the above.
- Use the Google and Bing DMCA takedown forms (a long-winded process) to report copyright infringement on search engines.
- Document the copyright infringement with screenshots and inform advertising partners and affiliate programmes of the incident in case it breaches operating agreements, and disavow any connection with the copied content and school involved.
Why is all this action necessary?
- Your actions in copying the material mean the original writer has to quickly inform search engines and their advertising and affiliate partners to safeguard their business.
- This is important because if you’ve cut and pasted links, code, embeds or licensed materials; as well as text or images onto your school’s website, you may well have invalidated the educational website’s operating agreements with advertising and affiliate partners. As a result of your copying, the victim’s commissions and advertising fees could be suspended or cancelled. That means your actions could potentially tank their business.
- As you can imagine, this will have a disastrous effect on the copying victim’s mental health. Think twice before you copy someone else’s work!
- Did you realise that when you copy someone else’s hard work onto your school’s website your actions could destroy that person’s livelihood in under 24 hours?
If you copy content onto your school’s website, what are the risks to you as a teacher?
- Putting your name, or your school’s name on the copied content amounts to serious dishonesty, a breach of teaching standards and potentially a professional disciplinary issue.
- Do you want to lose your job and career for copying someone else’s work and passing it off as your own? Would you accept that conduct from a student or a colleague? More seriously, if the plagiarised content has been used as evidence of a wider contribution to the school, such as on a CV, job application or as part of a UPS pay rise application, then the conduct could be viewed as fraud.
- So, copying and passing off content as your own isn’t ‘magpieing’, it’s in the same ballpark as lying on your CV or making a false expenses claim.
- Copyright infringement by teachers could amount to professional misconduct.
- There are two aspects of copyright infringement that would typically amount to professional misconduct. Firstly a referral as a result of a ‘relevant offence‘ and secondly, if a teacher or school has put their name, school logo, or otherwise rebranded copied material to cause viewers to believe the school authored it, this is an act of serious dishonesty that amounts to conduct that may bring the profession into disrepute.
- If you have copied material from a site that has put measures in place to stop or make it difficult to copy the content, or explicitly tells you in the website terms and conditions that you must not copy the content, then you have also committed a breach of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, (otherwise referred to as hacking) This is a police matter, and if pursued to conviction (which includes accepting a caution) would automatically result in a misconduct referral, as a relevant offence, to the TRA.
- Under UK law copyright infringement is a strict liability tort. Therefore it does not matter if the copyright infringement was intended or not, it is still a breach of the Copyright Act 1998. Furthermore, by copying material, despite the protections above, and especially if the teacher ought to have known or did know that their actions were wrong, a teacher will have demonstrated an intent to commit copyright infringement – which for registered teachers could be construed as an act of conduct that may bring the profession into disrepute.
- If the copyright infringement resulting had a disastrous and negative effect on the victim’s business, this would likely result in publicity in the mainstream media or on social media that would expose the teacher’s serious dishonesty to the general public. In such cases, the TRA can self refer cases that have appeared in the media that are likely to bring the profession into disrepute. This would particularly apply to cases where the copied material has been passed off as a teacher’s work – an act that would amount to serious dishonesty.
If you copy content onto your school’s website, what are the risks to your school?
A permanent negative digital footprint
- The victim of your copying will report your copyright infringements to Google, Bing and other search engines as part of the takedown process. If your school doesn’t take action promptly to remove the copied content, the school’s website is at risk of being delisted by search engines and flagged for copyright infringement by Google and Bing. This is a permanent black mark and could be disastrous for your school’s website visibility. Google will also file a permanent and undeletable record of the copyright infringement on the Lumen database.
You could lose your school website
- To begin an evidence trail and prove to partners that they are taking all reasonable steps to deal with your copying, the copying victim has to set a deadline for the content to be removed. This is also done to ensure an acknowledgement from your school’s website hosting provider.
- Once your school’s website hosting provider has acknowledged the takedown notice they are then jointly liable for your copyright infringement and on the hook for potential damages if the content is not removed expeditiously. At this point, they will probably tell you to remove the content you copied immediately.
You could cause other schools’ websites to be suspended
- If you don’t respond or acquiesce to your host’s instructions, they will act on it by suspending or removing your hosting. The host will suspend or remove your website for a ‘terms of service’ violation. Bear in mind, if your site is on shared hosting, this might not just be your school’s website. For example, if your website is run by your MAT, and the other 16 schools in your trust are hosted on the same account, your actions will cause all 16 school websites to go down if the hosting is suspended. Or, if your website was built by and is hosted by a local company and you pay them a subscription, if you ignore the takedown and your hosting provider decides to suspend their account, then all that company’s client websites will go down. Or, in a more extreme case, you’ve bought an off the shelf website from a popular school website provider that operates thousands of school sites all over the country. Ignore the takedown notice and all those thousands of sites could go dark. All of these scenarios are based on real-life cases within the past three years.
- Many hosts operate a YouTube-style copyright ‘strikes’ policy. In other words, they will exclude your school from their website hosting platform for persistent misconduct.
Your school could experience reputational damage
- If the infringed business victim is using a specialist intellectual property protection service, they may well contact all the contacts listed on your public-facing website and domain name.
- This might include senior teachers, governors, the MAT/ LEA/Trust, website host, and any names embedded into the metadata of the infringing document.
- If the school does not respond it is not unreasonable for the infringed party to proceed to tracing and attempting contact using school contact data from social media. This might include calling out or naming and shaming the school on social media to effect the takedown of the copied content.
Your school could become liable for costs and damages
- It will not be difficult for the copying victim to prove loss of earnings. If pursued, your school will be liable for the lost earnings and future earnings of the company as caused by your actions. For an SME, if the affiliate & advertising earnings are £50k per annum, that might be £150-300k in anticipated future earnings, costs and damages. That could seriously impact your school’s staffing budget and result in redundancies. If it’s a large company that’s been infringed, and your copying has caused irreparable harm, the scale of damages might exceed your school’s budget and cause your school to be closed to protect the Group / MAT / LEA assets.
- The copying victim can claim all legal costs relating to your actions in copying content illegally.
- The copying victim could claim damages relating to the negative effect of your school’s actions on their health.
Copyright: commonly held misconceptions – where some teachers and schools get it wrong
Here’s a list of misguided responses to copyright infringement notices from schools & teachers, that include misconceptions and urban myths; and why these responses are incorrect
But we didn’t respond because schools don’t work at the weekend, or we don’t answer mail or emails during the holidays.
- No. If you run a website your webmaster has responsibilities. If your school’s webmaster isn’t aware of these responsibilities, organise some training ASAP! A website is a significant responsibility. You wouldn’t use that excuse for your school’s insurers, Ofsted, the emergency services or stakeholders involving safeguarding, would you? In the same way that your school caretaker maintains your physical school site, your school needs someone to maintain your school website every day.
But the copied material was down to a staff member who has since left.
- No. Your organisation is still liable since the former staff member was employed by your institution. Besides, every website owner is responsible for maintaining a compliant and legal website. You keep your staff list up to date, so the rest of your content should also be maintained. Check the terms of service of your website hosting, which will also stipulate that you are required to ensure your site is up to date and free from copyright infringement.
But we didn’t know it was an infringement.
- No. Copyright infringement is a “strict liability tort“. This means ignorance is no excuse or defence for copying someone else’s work. The onus is on you to check whose work it is and if you are allowed to use it.
But we thought crediting the writer was enough to make it ok.
- No. This is a misinterpretation of the definition of “Fair dealing”. DfE guidance states “Does using the work affect the market for the original work? If a use of a work acts as a substitute for it, causing the owner to lose revenue, then it is not likely to be fair.“
But we removed the link to the copied content so you can’t see it.
- No. That’s an Ostrich argument. Removing a link to the copied content is NOT the same as removing the content. Radioactive waste at Chernobyl is still there, even if a sarcophagus is covering it up. If Google sees the copyright infringement, not only will it cause damage, but anyone else, including Copyscape (the same application teachers use to check their students aren’t plagiarising), will see the content you copied on your school’s site in Google’s search results – and if Copyscape can see it it’s likely the victim of copying will also be alerted to it.
But we were only given 48 hours to remove the content. We’re a school and we have better things to do.
- No, the school is responsible for the infringement and responsible for removing it expeditiously. If you’ve been given 48 hours, be thankful it isn’t 24 hours, or a phone call demanding action on the spot – all of which are also reasonable under the circumstances. If you don’t have time to run a website, you shouldn’t be running a website.
But I couldn’t find a copyright symbol anywhere.
- No. Copyright symbols are not required in the UK. The requirement for a copyright symbol is a myth.
But I thought copyright had to be registered.
- No, this is another myth. There is no copyright registration system in the UK. If the copyright has been registered in countries that do offer copyright registration, such as the United States, it simply means that the victim party will be able to demand even more in terms of damages, in turn making it more attractive for lawyers to pursue.
But we thought copying was allowed under the Copyright Act.
- No. The Copyright Act has an exception to allow schools to copy material for purposes of education – ie classroom teaching. This doesn’t extend to activities outside the classroom, such as a website. Read the DfE guidance.
But we thought our school had a license to copy things?
- No. Educational licences only allow schools to copy content for educational use. A public-facing school website does not fall under educational use. Educational use refers to teaching in classrooms. As soon as a school website is involved, it becomes marketing, informational, or in the case of fee-paying schools, commercial.
But I’m an SLT and we didn’t like the tone of the copyright infringement takedown email and we decided to take righteous umbrage at someone telling us what to do and therefore we’re not going to deal with this.
- No. This behaviour will simply result in the victim’s solicitor dealing with your MAT/LEA & website host, further bolstered with the additional evidence that you acknowledged receipt of a valid takedown notice but refused to remove the content.
- This adds to the severity of the infringement since refusal to remove the content, despite being furnished with details of how the infringement has or is likely to cause loss to the victim will be interpreted as an “intent“, and proof that the school/senior leaders/teacher “has a knowledge or reasonable belief about the infringing nature of the works“, which both moves the infringement into the criminal tort and will likely increase any potential civil damages.
- Taking this approach and refusing to deal with the copyright infringement notice could result in everyone in the school involved with the copying and dealing with the takedown notice being liable for criminal copyright infringement.
Copyright training and courses for teachers and schools
(Note this website will receive affiliate fees from any purchases made using links to courses below)
- Essential webmaster skills – an ideal course for staff in charge of running school websites.
- Copyright and creative reuse in education – a course from The British Universities and Colleges Film and Video Council.
- A free Google course for webmasters focussing on responsibilities.
- A FutureLearn course for staff running school websites using WordPress, a popular CMS platform.
- A FutureLearn course on copyright and how it relates to money.
The Copyright Act – what it allows teachers and schools to use and how
Schools and teachers are allowed to:
- (Undertake) “limited copying of literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works for the purposes of teaching” as long as 1) “the work must be used solely to illustrate a point; 2) the use of the work must not be for commercial purposes (this rules out any school websites used for marketing); 3) the use must be fair dealing; (this rules out anything other than minor uses and “a few lines”; 4) it must be accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement.
- The above applies only to “the purposes of teaching“.
- Share a limited range of digital resources on a school VLE, or via Teams, Google Classroom (NOT a public-facing school website), if the school has a CLA license and the website, and the digital resource is specifically listed on the CLA’s included publishers list. (Very few educational resource websites are included on this list.)
Schools and teachers are not allowed to:
- Copy materials in such a way “which would undermine sales of teaching materials“.
- Copy resources from educational websites onto school websites without permission.
- Copy children’s work onto school websites or social media without parental permission.
- Copy pages of textbooks / commercial worksheets/commercial printed resources onto school websites without permission.
- If a website is happy for you to copy their content they will always say so, and they will explain how you can copy it.
- If a website doesn’t say you can copy its content you must presume they are not happy for you to copy it, and it’s up to you to obtain written permission.
- If you think something you find online is great, useful, and you think it’s worth using and recommending, then don’t copy it, help others to find it by linking to it.
- If you have a genuine reason to want to copy something, ask the creator first and get their permission in writing.
If you found this guide on copyright infringement for teachers and schools useful, you might also be interested in reading our directory of UK children’s publishers, our guide to online training for teachers, our list of useful websites for children’s home learning and our list of great children’s literature blogs to follow.