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In the majority of classes I've taken in middle/highschool, when making a slideshow, poster, or some other kind of visual presentation, teachers often remind students that they should not be using copyrighted images or other content in the presentation as there could be legal issues with doing so.

This is especially confusing because US copyright laws dealing with fair use seem to make exceptions for content used for "nonprofit educational purpouses" though the specifics of that seem a bit vague. The same goes for how "transformative" the use is: is placing an image into a slideshow alongside text transformative enough?

Does anyone know if there is a somewhat definitive answer to this? Is there even any legal precedent for these cases?

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  • There was the 1998 Conference on Fair Use which produced guidelines which could answer your question. However, they were not universally accepted, were not adopted into law, and were rejected by some courts.
    – user71659
    Oct 2, 2023 at 20:26

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As a legal matter, it is very likely that a good case that you could make a fair use case for the use of a copyrighted image in an arbitrary school presentation. But unless you're going to teach every student copyright law and make every teacher a copyright expert, it is likely that someone will find a way to use a copyrighted image in a school presentation in a way that wouldn't be fair use. It is much easier to simply say "no copyrighted images" rather than trying to adjudicate fair use on a case-by-case basis.

Practically, it is incredibly unlikely that anyone would sue over a middle/ high schooler's use of copyrighted images. Also practically, if the owner of an image decided to sue, you/ your school/ your district would fold like a cheap suit even if you had an incredibly strong fair use case. The folks that own Star Wars/ Star Trek/ Hogwarts/ etc. intellectual property have teams of lawyers that do copyright enforcement. Adding one more suit has very low marginal cost for them. You/ your school/ your district have 0 lawyers that deal with intellectual property law. Defending such a suit would be very expensive for you even if you won. So practically, it doesn't matter what the legal outcome would be.

Pedagogically, it makes sense to say not to use copyrighted images because teachers are preparing you for the real world. And in the real world, you're not going to want to include copyrighted images in your presentations. In addition to losing the benefit of being educational, it is vastly more likely that some IP owner is going to sue Major Corporate Employer for misusing images in a PowerPoint presentation than that they're going to sue a middle schooler for doing the same thing because Corporate Employer can pay damages. Rather than trying to explain to a bunch of high schoolers that it's probably fine for them to include a comic strip in their presentation but it's not fine for them to do the same thing next year when they're working, they set a "no copyrighted images" rule so you don't develop bad habits in the first place.

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There is no definitive answer as to what makes a use "transformative", and not much help on the exact lines between non-profit educational and other. This is the best compendium of case law. Classroom usage is one of the two most-applicable categories of fair use, meaning that a finding of infringement can more easily be defeated in such a case as opposed to "making copies of Harry Potter and selling them" (quotations in political commentary are also way up there). If you make money off of copying, there is an increased probability of a finding of infringement. If your purpose in making the copy is not to educate yourself or others, there is an increased probability of a finding of infringement. Of course, teachers have a duty to advocate an abundance of caution which would lead one to devising your own creative means of expressing the point, when that is reasonable, thus sidestepping the infringement question.

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Ask yourself: Instead of committing copyright infringement, could you create the image yourself, or buy it legally from Shutterstock? So the purpose of your use would be saving some hours of work or a bit of money. Could you write your paper without these images? So does this use really seem “fair” to you?

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