To be safe about copyright:

  • only show films you have acquired legitimately (eg commercial DVDs, not downloads from ‘torrent’ or video sharing sites) and only in a classroom teaching context
  • get students to create all their own original material (including music) when making films
  • get a licence if you want to show films for entertainment or to the public
  • get permission if you want to use anybody else’s copyright material
  • don’t copy films (or any other copyright material) or put them online .

What copyright is:

Copyright law provides a framework under which, if somebody creates something – like a picture, a film, a piece of music or a book – they normally have the right to control how it is used. You have to get their permission to show or copy a work or to include it in your own work. You may have to make a payment and include a written acknowledgement that it is their copyright.

Sometimes copyright is owned by someone else, for example if the creator has sold the rights to a company.

Normally the creator automatically has copyright as soon as they record the work in some way. It expires 70 years after the death of the creator in most cases (50 years in the case of sound recordings and broadcasts). Copyright law is different in some other countries, though it’s harmonised to some extent across the European Union.

It is very easy to break copyright rules and rights accidentally. In most cases, you need permission or a license to use anybody else’s still images, moving images, words or music. There are a few exceptions for education but these are more limited than many people think. Most material on the Internet is subject to copyright. If you break copyright you can be sued by the owner for copyright infringement and in some cases you may be committing a criminal offence.

Limited exceptions to copyright

There are a few kinds of copying which are counted as ‘fair dealing’ and are allowed without payment.

Private study and research

You can copy a small amount of copyright material for the purposes of private study and research. Using material for teaching in a school does not come under this provision.

Instruction or examination

You are allowed to copy parts of a sound recording, film or broadcast (and some other works) for the purposes of ‘instruction or examination’, but not if you use a ‘reprographic process’ (‘any appliance which makes multiple copies’). In effect this means that you can write out extracts from a script (or your students can transcribe it), and they can could make their own version of a film sequence, but you can’t photocopy or make DVD copies of the original. The copying must be done by the student or the teacher, the source must be acknowledged, and the instruction must be non-commercial.

Incidental use

If an item such as poster, a picture, or a TV programme just happens to appear in the background of a shot, it may be classified as ‘incidental use’ which isn’t regarded as copyright infringement. Be careful about this: if it forms a substantial part of the shot it may not be considered incidental.


Be careful when using collections of ‘royalty-free’ images, sound and video which are available on the Internet and on disc. The material is copyright, but once you have bought it you can usually use it wherever you want without making any further payment. Check the terms and conditions carefully before you use the material. You should also check that the publisher really does own the copyright.

Public domain

If the copyright has expired, or if the owner has decided to make it available without copyright, the work is in the ‘public domain’ and can be used freely. Check that it really is in the public domain: for example, if an old film has been restored or has a new soundtrack it may be subject to copyright.

Creative Commons

This is a form of licensing where the owners of works choose to make their work available for other people to use. There are different kinds of Creative Commons licences, some of which limit what you can do with the work. You may have to acknowledge the original creator; you may not be able to change or add to the original work, or you may only be allowed to use it if you agree to share your work in the same way. Read the terms and conditions carefully before using Creative Commons material.

Asking for permission

When you ask somebody for permission to use their work, always explain exactly how you want to use it. Tell them if you are using it in education and not for commercial purposes: they may let you use it free or for a reduced fee. Always get permission in writing and keep a copy.

How copyright affects film education

Showing and studying films

You can show films at school – in whole or in part – but it must be for ‘instruction’ rather than entertainment. You can only show them to your students within the school and not to the general public.

If you want to show films for entertainment (eg at an after-school film club or at the end of term) you need a  Public Video Screening Licence from CEFM/FilmBank, who cover the vast majority of films. Your local authority or school may already have a licence. If you charge for viewing films you will need a specific licence for each screening, normally from FilmBank .

You are breaking copyright if you copy films, eg ‘ripping’ extracts from DVDs for use in teaching. Some teachers do this to make it easier to access individual scenes in the classroom. The legal alternative is to use DVD-playing software, or a standalone DVD player, which will allow you to ‘bookmark’ the sections you want without copying the disc.

The terms and conditions of some video sharing sites (eg YouTube) prohibit you from downloading and storing films from their site.

If your institution has an ERA licence you can record, copy and use terrestrial UK television programmes, subject to certain restrictions. You can make extracts from them but you can’t modify them (eg by adding a different soundtrack).

You can also use cable or satellite programmes (which aren’t covered by the ERA) within a school for educational purposes, as long as they aren’t accessible from outside the premises (eg on a VLE or Intranet which students can access at home).

Making and disseminating films

Be careful when making and disseminating student films. You almost always need to seek permission to include any copyright material, even if it’s a small amount, and even if it’s made by other students.

It’s more creative for students to shoot their own images, make their own music, and write their own words rather than using other people’s material. However, there are some sources of copyright-free contemporary and archive material which you can use with certain restrictions. Video sources are listed in the Partners, resources and funding section.

Here is how copyright applies to different kinds of material you might want to use in your film:

Film and video

If you include parts of other people’s films in your films, you have to contact them for permission. This applies to films on DVD or tape, and to films on the Internet. A lot of material on video-sharing sites breaks copyright: if you use it you will be breaking copyright as well. Many video-sharing sites don’t allow you to download and use the films from their site.

Still images

Be very careful with still images. Many rights-holders charge large amounts for unauthorised use of their images. This applies wherever you get them from: it is not acceptable to film a poster on the classroom wall, for example (though it may count as permitted ‘incidental use’ if it just happens to be in the background of a shot of something else). Brand logos may also be protected by copyright, and using a logo may also be a trademark infringement.

Spoken word

There are usually two copyright holders for spoken word material such as interviews: the person who said the words, and the person or organisation who recorded them. You will need to get permission from both of them, unless the speaker agreed to pass the rights to the organisation making the interview. If you record your own interviews, it’s a good idea to get the interviewee to sign a release form allowing you to use their words freely.

Quotations and adaptations

If you use a quotation from, or adapt, a book or other printed material which is still in copyright, you need to seek permission from the author and publisher.


Filming pages from books is only acceptable if the book itself is out of copyright. With a modern edition of a novel that’s out of copyright, the ‘typographical arrangement’ will still be subject to copyright.


Most material on the web is copyright and you must seek permission even if you only use a small part of it.


You need permission to use any copyright music. You need to get two separate permissions, for the publishing and the recording. Music publishing is dealt with by PRS and music recordings are dealt with by PPL, who will give you contact details of the record company so you can deal with them directly.

If you perform your own version of someone else’s song you still have to deal with publishing rights (through PRS) if the music, words or arrangement are still in copyright.

If you use a recording of a piece of music written by Beethoven you still have to deal with recording rights (through PPL) if the recording or performers’ rights are still in copyright.

You may need to specify exactly how the music will be used (‘sync rights’) and to seek permission again if you change this (eg using it with different images).

If you create your own music using loop-based software you are normally allowed to use it without restriction, but check the terms and conditions.

The Open Music Archive has downloadable music recordings which are out of copyright.

You can also look for Creative Commons music. has downloadable performances of out-of-copyright classical music, under the Creative Commons CC0 license (which doesn’t place any restriction on how you use them).


Maps that are less than 70 years old are still in copyright. To use Ordnance Survey maps you must get permission from them. Their media licence will normally allow you to use up to five minutes in any film without charge, as long as you ask permission first and provide acknowledgement.


You will need to get permission for the specific way in which you are planning to disseminate or reproduce your film. In most cases you have to contact the rights holder directly, though PRS offer two useful licenses to cover music publishing:

Copyright in student work

By default, students own the copyright in any work they create and could in theory prevent the school from showing or distributing it.  To avoid potential problems you may wish to require students to sign a form assigning copyright in their work to the school or granting the school permission to use it.

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