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Copyright and the Art Teacher

What do art teachers need to know about copyright? Is it ok to print pictures of art I find online and show it to my students? What IS copyright and why does it exist? Can I email a copy of artwork to my students???

I had these same questions so I started reading and reading- all about copyright! Now, I’m not a legal expert, so don’t take this as legal advice, but I have been researching copyright a lot lately. I want to share with you what I’ve found by giving you a summary of what I understand after many hours of research. I’ve tried to include links to the best articles I’ve read, in case you want to dig deeper. Since this website is all about being an amazing art teacher, I’m going to limit my thoughts to the copyright on works of art.

What is Copyright?

When you’re thinking about copyright, you’re thinking about creative, tangible or digital works. All art (paintings, drawings, sculptures, architectural plans, etc) is subject to copyright. copyright is inherent and doesn’t have to be legally declared or anything. (However, if you end up in court, you’re going to wish you had registered your copyright!)

Copyright protects a piece of art for a set term or period of time. To determine when the term of protection has expired, keep the year 1923 in mind. Anything published before 1923 is no longer protected by copyright and is now in the ‘public domain.”  Public Domain has a specific legal definition and it NOT the same thing as public availability. Public domain and copyright are different in different countries.

For art published after 1923, I’ve found this chart by Lolly Gasaway at the University of North Carolina to be very helpful: “When works pass into the public domain.”  I printed it out for my own use and keep it handy. You might also find it helpful.

Why Do We Have Copyright?

Governments establish copyright to encourage people to create! Copyright encourages people to create by protecting their ability to gain financially from their works. So, if you violate copyright, the owner may decide to sue you for lost earnings. Since this is always decided on a case-by-case basis, often in court, it’s hard to be 100% certain about how all the exemptions apply.

How much can people earn from their art?

Let me make this clear with an example I ran across recently. In Henry Adams’ article, Wyeth’s World, he tells the story of the Museum of Modern Art purchasing the painting Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth in 1948 and then “within a decade or so the museum had banked reproduction fees amounting to hundreds of times the sum—$1,800—they had paid to acquire the picture.” This means the museum had hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from the licensing and reproductions of ONE of their paintings in ONE decade! Surely not all museum purchases are such a great investment, but can you see why copyright is such a big deal?

Copyright Exemptions

The Classroom Exemption

There are some exemptions to the restrictions that copyright creates. One I’ve heard referenced many times is the 110(1) classroom exemption. However, the 110(1) classroom exemption only applies at non-profit educational institutions. Since my local homeschool community, like most homeschool co-ops and communities, has not gone through the legal hoops to become non-profit, this exemption doesn’t apply to us. However, if you teach at a non-profit educational institution, check into it!

The Fair Use Exemption

“Fair Use” is the other exemption I hear used frequently.  Education World’s 5 part series on “The Educator’s Guide to Copyright and Fair Use” was very helpful in understanding this. They explain that Fair Use can be used at Non-profit OR educational institutions, which I interpret to mean it applies to our homeschool community. After reading this article, here’s my own rules of thumb:

  • I show my students printed or digital images of copyrighted art work.
  • I do NOT give my students copies of the printed art to take home with them (that would be distributing the art, which is not covered by this exemption.)
  • I do not email other people copies of art under copyright. Instead I email them a link to the art work.

Looking at Art Books

Places to Find Images

Not only does the original work of art have copyright, but the photograph or scan of the work of art can also be under copyright. That’s why it’s so great that the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have open access to their images of art that are in the public domain. You can then print their images and show them to students in class. (However, if the work of art is not in the public domain, the image of the work of art will not be included in their open access images.)

Wikimedia Commons is also another great source. Not only do they have tons of copyright-free images, often they will also have images that are under copyright, but with an explanation of why they believe they can post the image under Fair Use. I think it’s pretty interesting to read the justifications because it helps me understand copyright better.

I’ve also had some success googling for articles about the artists and looking at what photos they have included. Non-commercial websites often get access to “press images” for free, allowing them to include images of the artist’s work, especially when they’re helping inform the public about the current exhibitions at the art museums and galleries. Many of the links within my lesson plans are to these types of articles.

If I can’t find images appropriate to print and show in class, this is one of the few times that I would bring my iPad and show my students a picture of the artist’s work online. Many museums, like the Museum of Modern Art, have beautiful viewable images online, but they are not available for download. Normally I try to keep technology out of the classroom to keep life simple and predictable (and because Classical Conversations strongly prefers it that way), but sometimes it’s unavoidable.


Library books are a good source of images as well. I enjoy them and use them often. However, there are two small down-sides to library books. First, it’s surprising how often I can’t find anything suitable at the library when we’re ready to study that artist. Then, I get tired of spending tons of time looking for the perfect book.  Second, I don’t enjoy hauling a heavy book to our homeschool community. However, if I find a nice art book at the used book store, my love of books takes over. I flip through it to see if it has any information or prints related to any of the artists we’re studying. Now I have quite a collection of art books. So, if I have a book with applicable photos, I will totally lug it to class.

I hope this summary helps you feel more confident showing your students examples of copyrighted art that is created by great artists. I love showing my students great works of art to inspire them and to help them make connections with other subjects and cultural references.

Please let me know if your have any questions by commenting here or emailing me at Julie@ridgelightranch.com. I may not have the answer, but not knowing will bug me enough, that I’ll have to go figure it out! 😉

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