Technology and Legal Issues

Online Lesson Contents



Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Software Licensing

Part 3: Internet Acceptable Use Policies & CIPA

Part 4: Fair Use of Copyrighted Materials

Technology brings a host of legal issues to schools. Questions about appropriate use of the Internet, software copyright compliance, and fair use of electronic resources are starting points for consideration. Some of these issues can be dealt with using existing school procedures. Others require that school boards set new policies which direct technological activities along safe and ethical paths. This online module is meant to be a starting point for thinking about legal issues and technology. Schools should consult their legal counsel as they plan and develop policies in response to ideas raised here.


  • Students will understand problems related to software piracy and school responsibilities for licensing.
  • Students will describe five elements of Internet acceptable use policies.
  • Students will understand responsibilities for use of electronic resources including ideas behind the fair use doctrine.


Read materials in this online lesson and follow links to other World Wide Web sites.

Go to the threaded discussion forum titled, "Online Lesson 4- Technology and Legal Issues," and respond to either of the following questions:

A student known as a skinhead published a web page off of the school web site which contains links to racist and anti-semitic sites. You are the principal. What action do you take?


You're the technology committee chair of an elementary school. You're aware that at least 50% of the software at your site is "softloaded" (pirated). What actions will you advocate?


Go to Part 2- Software Licensing

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...educational institutions are not exempt from copyright laws.

Part 2: Software Licensing


A study conducted by the Software Publishers Association reported that of the 574 million new software applications installed globally during 1997, 228 million applications or four in every ten were "pirated." Pirating refers to the unauthorized use of software. Types of software piracy include:

  • purchasing a single user license and loading it onto multiple computers ("softloading")
  • making, distributing and/or selling copies that appear to be from an authorized source ("counterfeiting")
  • downloading copyrighted software from the Internet or bulletin boards without permission from the copyright holder

Schools sometimes feel that they are exempt from software copyright laws. According to the Software Publishers Association, "...educational institutions are not exempt from copyright laws. To the contrary because of their unique position of influence schools must remain committed to upholding the copyright laws. Just as it would be wrong to buy one textbook and photocopy it for use by other students, it is wrong for a school to duplicate software (or to allow its faculty or students to do so) without authority from the publisher."

Studying issues related to software ownership in schools further, peruse the frequently asked questions at the following web address:

Anti Piracy Frequently Asked Questions
The Software and Information Industry Association

The penalties for software piracy are quite severe. If sued for civil copyright infringement, the penalty is up to $100,000 per title infringed. Schools are required to provide positive proof that all software have been purchased to demonstrate copyright compliance. The best documentation includes: purchase orders, invoices, product specific licenses, and canceled checks. Normally, original media such as CD-ROMs, diskettes, and manuals are not acceptable documentation of ownership.

Stories about schools being prosecuted for software piracy are beginning to emerge. The Los Angeles Times reported in July 1998, that:

"For years, Microsoft Corp. and other industry giants have tried to persuade public schools that computers belong in classrooms alongside textbooks and teachers.

Now the same firms are targeting the Los Angeles Unified School District in a different way, seeking $300,000 over allegations that teachers and other employees have illegally copied software programs."

Read the full text of this story and what publishers intend to do with proceeds from fines at the Los Angeles Times website: L.A. Schools in Software Piracy Bind.

The Business Software Alliance (BSA) of the United States encourages schools to steer clear of software piracy. They have developed free teaching materials for students ages 10 and up addressing values, ethics and citizenship while promoting "safe and sane software use." The BSA curriculum material called, Reboot Your Attitude, has relevance to science, language arts, social studies and math classes according to the authors.

What Schools Should Do...

Keeping schools on the right course with software licensing is an on-going effort. The most helpful advice can be distilled into three points:

  • School boards need to pass strong policies that support copyright laws.
  • School leaders need to continually educate staff, students and parents about the folly of software piracy.
  • Schools should be vigilent in maintaining a current inventory of their software possessions. A number of free workstation and network based software audit tools are available for downloading at the Business Software Alliance website. These tools allow schools to identify and track licensed and unlicensed software and other files installed on desktops, laptops and network servers.

Go to Part 3- Internet Acceptable Policies

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Part 3: Internet Acceptable Use Policies & CIPA

Students do not give up their rights to free speech through a district’s computer system.

The Internet has become a common educational resource in schools across the country. Teachers and students are generally accessing resources from the World Wide Web and communicating via electronic mail. Most of these schools have adopted "Acceptable Use Policies"(AUPs) defining student and staff use of the Internet. Such policies are intended to: 1) define Internet services; 2) guide educational activities; 3) inform parents/guardians about Internet access; and 4) direct supervision of a district/school’s Internet access.

As new services from the Internet evolve and use of the Internet increases it is wise for districts to review their Acceptable Use Policies. This section summarizes the important parts of a district’s Internet Acceptable Use Policy. Excerpts from an analysis by Nancy Willard titled, A Legal and Educational Analysis of K-12 Internet Acceptable Use Policies follow.

Limited Educational Purpose
K-12 educational uses of the Internet have boundaries. Reasonable policies limit system use to educational and career or professional-development activities and limited high-quality self discovery. This section also provides a Definition of Non-Educational Activities including- commercial use (offering or providing products or services -and- use of the system to purchase products) political lobbying (engaging in fundraising activities and support for specific measures/candidates)

Student Safety and District Liability
The greatest concern in the area of student safety is a district’s "duty of care toward its students." Districts must insure that students are not able to come into contact with a person who could physically harm them through an Internet connection. Reasonable precautions include personal safety requirements for students and the provision of personal safety information to parents. Districts can potentially be held responsible for losses sustained by users as a result of a system failure. This could include loss of data and/or interruption of services. A disclaimer should provide notice of this potential and disclaim a district from responsibility. Users should be encouraged to make a personal back-up of materials contained on district systems. Districts should be concerned about the potential that a user will violate restrictions against purchasing products or services through its system. District should include a disclaimer for any financial obligations arising from unauthorized use of the system for the purchase of products or services. Potential liability can also be found if a user causes harm to another person or organization through the district system. Districts should include a provision in their policy that will indemnify them against inappropriate actions by system users.

Disciplinary Process
This section deals with student related issues. The district’s collective bargaining agreement and state law will generally govern employee disciplinary procedures. Due process needs to be a part of any disciplinary action. Students need to be notified about violations and be able to respond to allegations. AUPs should be explicit in making students aware that Internet policies are part of a school’s general rules and regulations for student behavior. Violations should be handled in accord with these rules including contacting law enforcement officials when there is suspicion of illegal activity. An AUP should provide clear information about what actions will be considered inappropriate. Courts have upheld as sufficiently clear such terms as: "willful disobedience," intentional disruption," and "vulgarity" in a school setting. Districts might want to question whether such terms as "objectionable," "inappropriate," "inaccurate," "sexually-oriented," and "offensive" provide a sufficient level of clarity for students to be able to guide their actions.

Search and Seizure
Privacy issues present themselves in relation to electronic files stored on district computer equipment for both students and employees. Students should be told that a very close analogy can be made between lockers and personal electronic files. Routine maintenance and monitoring of district systems may lead to discovery that a user has violated the law or a district rule. Reasonable suspicion can also lead to individualized searches of electronic files. The rights to investigate an employee’s electronic files are less clear. In O’Connor v. Ortega, 480 U.S. 709 (1987) , the Supreme Court held that employees did have constitutionally protected privacy interests in the work environment but that the reasonableness of the employee’s expectation of privacy must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

First Amendment Issues
Students do not give up their rights to free speech through a district’s computer system. Student writing posted publicly on district servers can be edited by district officials if the electronic media is seen as a limited forum established for specific educational purposes. In cases where students are allowed to indiscriminately use a system similar to a general Internet newsgroup forum, a school’s authority in editing and controlling student submissions may be seen as an abridgment of the First Amendment. In other cases, educationally based restrictions on free speech that are appropriate for a district to impose, in order of severity, are:

  • Criminal speech and speech in the course of committing a crime (i.e. threats to the president; instructions on breaking into computer systems; child pornography, drug dealing, gang activities, etc.)
  • Speech that is inappropriate in an educational setting or violates district rules
  • Inappropriate language- obscene, profane , vulgar, rude, threatening, or inflammatory language
  • Dangerous information- information that if acted upon could cause damage or present a danger of disruption
  • Violations of privacy- revealing personal information about others
  • Abuse of resources- chain letters or "spamming"
  • Copyright infringement or plagiarism
  • Violations of personal safety- revealing personal contact information about self

Congress studied the Internet duirng the late 90s. Based on concerns from constitutents, they passed the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in December 2000. This bill required development of Internet Safety Plans in all schools and libraries that received Federal funding. A CIPA plan needs to address the following areas:

  1. Access by minors to inappropriate matter on the Internet and World Wide Web.
  2. Safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms, and other forms of direct electronic communications.
  3. Unauthorized online access by minors, including "hacking" and other unlawful activities.
  4. Unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal information regarding minors.
  5. Measures designed to restrict minors' access to materials harmful to minors.

Everyone is not in agreement about the value of CIPA. The American Library Association feels that CIPA is unconstitutional. An excerpt from the ALA website shares some of their perspective:

The ALA believes strongly that CIPA is unconstitutional. The filtering mandate imposed by Congress is unworkable in the context of a public institution because it restricts access to constitutionally protected speech on the users served by libraries. No filtering or blocking technology exists that blocks access only to speech that is obscene, child pornography or harmful to minors. And no filtering technology protects children from all objectionable materials.

Read more about the American Library Association's perspective at their CIPA website.




Go to Part 4- Fair Use of Copyrighted Materials

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Part 4: Fair Use of Copyrighted Materials

















Original creators of text, graphics, video, and music have rights associated with their creations even if they do not have a formal copyright notice.



Copy machines, video cassette recorders, scanners, and the World Wide Web have brought many conveniences to schools. Staff members and students are able to copy, duplicate, and distribute media in a variety of different formats. Legal questions surface when the rights of authors, artists, and musicians are abridged in these activities. Original creators of text, graphics, video, and music have rights associated with their creations even if they do not have a formal copyright notice affixed to their work. This section provides insight into fair use of copyrighted materials.

According to Nancy Willard, "Copyright laws are based on an underlying social value: People should have the right to compensation for their creative work because compensating people encourages more creative works and our society is benefited by these works. A creative work (text, music, picture, etc.) is automatically protected by copyright from the moment it is created. No copyright notice or registration is required. "Public domain" is the status of a work that is not protected by copyright because the creator has clearly and specifically relinquished all copyright rights or the copyright has expired. Since a notice is not required, merely publishing a work without a notice is not a relinquishment of copyright rights."

Willard goes on to say that, "The "fair use doctrine" provides a limited basis by which people can use a copyrighted work without getting permission from the creator. The essence of the fair use doctrine is that a person is not using the work in such a manner that is, or has, the potential of, diverting income from the creator. One of the rationales for the fair use doctrine is the immediacy of the need for the use of the material and the difficulty in contacting the owner of the copyright for permission."

In a publication titled, From Now On, Jamie McKenzie offers a group of scenerios that provide insight into fair use doctrines:

Case 1: Surfing Photographs

A student finds some great surfing shots at a resort page and downloads them to incorporate into a multimedia presentation she is developing for her English class. Is this legal under the "Fair Use" provisions of the copyright law? Impressed by the report, the teacher nominates the production for publishing on the high school's web site. May the surfing pictures be incorporated? Under what conditions?

Case 2: Animal Pictures Art

Students use animal pictures from a CD of clip art which has been purchased by the school to create a virtual museum which will be available on the school's web site. Is that legal?


Copyright & Fair Use Resources


Classroom Copyright Chart
What are our rights and responsibilites with regard to copyright? Take a look at the this helpful chart developed by Hall Davidson, an education specialist from KOCE television and Orange County Schools, to get some answers.

The Copyright & Fair Use Web Site
This site is unique because it assembles for the first time in one location a wide range of materials related to this controversial and hotly-debated issue: the use of copyrighted material by individuals, libraries and educational institutions.

Citing Internet Resources
Check out Sonoma State University's Schultz Information Center to get Internet style guides.




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