Copyright Issues in Online Education

Copyright Issues in Online Education

More than 1.5 billion learners have had their educations disrupted since the worldwide lock-down started. As a result, online courses quickly became the standard to fill the void left by a global epidemic in the provision of education. The majority of schools and institutions around the world now use online learning. Despite its benefits, online education has a variety of disadvantages. Use of copyrighted content in online teaching has become one of these significant challenges.

While online learning has existed since quite a while, the COVID-19 epidemic was the catalyst for schools and colleges around the world to adopt it. The teacher would use assets such as online presentations, audio-visual animations, and text papers while teaching online or remotely using video-conferencing applications. The educator can control the data that was spread in an offline educational environment. In a web-based style of education, however, managing information becomes a tough undertaking, particularly because the relevant data should be made available online for the pupils due to the lack of a physical classroom or facilities like libraries etc. 

Copyright law is concerned with the expression of an idea rather than the thought itself. As a result, corporeal forms such as books and videos are protected by copyright. According to Section 13 of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957, any work in the form of a literary, theatrical, artistic, or musical creation, as well as cinematographic films and sound recordings, is protected by copyright. Copyright prevents others from using the original author’s work without permission or licence. However, copyright law authorizes use of a protected content in certain instances without obtaining the author’s permission. This is the fair usage theory, commonly known as the fair dealing doctrine in India. When evaluating fair use, the objective and nature of task wherein the copyrighted material is employed, and the quantity of effort employed, are all taken into account.

By their rulings, the Indian courts have established what constitutes fair use. The Kerala High Court constituted a three-condition method in Civic Chandran and Ors. v C. Ammini Amma and Ors. to decide if the defence of fair use can be applied in a case, which was-

  1. amount and value of material taken;  
  2. purpose of taking it; and
  3. probable competition between the two works.

Fair dealing with any original work purely for the purpose of critique and review, whether that work or any other work, does not constitute infringement of the copyright, according to Section 52(1)(a) of the Copyright Act. Furthermore, Section 52(1)(i) emphasizes that material copied by a student or a teacher for the purpose of studying at a school is not deemed a copyright infringement. 

However, it would be a fallacy to assume that the doctrine of fair use/fair dealing permits the distribution of copyrighted content for educational reasons. Such an incorrect assumption is more likely to result in copyright infringement. As a result, even when used for the purpose of teaching, this concept has significant limitations. The copyrighted material must be acquired legally. While downloading creative piece that has been published on the internet is legal, downloading pirated content or material obtained through websites that give free copies of purchased material is not. The copyrighted work should not be utilised for anything other than educational reasons. Teachers and educational institutions must ensure that the content they utilise is solely for the non-profit purpose of learning, as Section 52(1)(i) only enables students and teachers to use such work for educational purposes. Uploading scanned copies of paid books to share with students does not qualify as fair use/fair dealing. 

Since commercial or simply unlawful use of such material could result in legal action, universities and institutions, as well as professors and teachers, should keep the following factors in mind to avoid copyright infringement.

  1. Instead of downloading the material, students should be given the address to the material’s website. This ensures that the original authors are properly credited for their widely distributed works. Links to illegal material, such as free scanned versions of paid books found on a pirating website, should not be shared.  Furthermore, the original author should have submitted or allowed the item to be posted publicly.
  2. Schools and colleges can also buy software using their institutional credentials, allowing students to use the content offered on such platforms for their study.
  3. The adoption of open-access platforms, where information is freely exchanged, should be encouraged. Such platforms allow for the unrestricted use of uploaded content as long as it is only utilised for educational purposes.
  4. Permission should be taken from the original copyright holder to utilise the work in the classroom and for educational purposes.
  5. Teachers should also attempt to generate original information that they can easily share with their pupils without fear of infringing on someone else’s copyright.

Access to knowledge via the internet has undoubtedly improved the efficiency with which education is delivered, but this same accessibility has also created a threat to copyright law. Considering that web-based learning has now become the standard, the copyright law of online learning will likely become a source of contention. As a result, it is essential to inform and educate our teachers and educational institutions on the various ways in which they could infringe on copyright and how to avoid doing so. The doctrine of fair use/fair dealing has its boundaries thus our educators must always be wary of infringing on the rights of others.


Snehal Bhatia, Research Intern at IPSTE Academy & fourth-Year, Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA


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