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When Frugal Is Illegal: Here’s How to Avoid the Copyright Trap

By Kim Kautzer
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #104, 2012.

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Kim Kautzer


We at PHS realize this is a very emotional issue for many people. Our intent is not to make anyone feel bad, but to help our readers understand their rights and responsibilities under the law. Remember, you can always contact a publisher, explain your situation, and ask for an exception to be made in your case. “Native” homeschool publishers, such as those whose ads you find in PHS, are more likely to be open to such appeals.—Editor

Is This Legal?
Which of these well-meaning moms is actually doing the right thing?

  1. A mom of seven, Jane is always looking for ways to be frugal, such as having her children use page-protector overlays and wipe-off markers instead of writing in their workbooks. This way, she doesn’t have to buy extra copies.
  2. Isabel orders a magazine subscription that comes with a free e-book. The e-book normally sells for $10, but since it was free, she forwards a copy to several friends.
  3. With an unemployed husband, Amy needs money for curricula. Since her 7-year-old did his math problems on paper instead of in his consumable workbook, she decides to resell the math book.
  4. Dawn is so excited about her new lesson-planning software that she shares the DVD with her best friend.
  5. At a homeschool convention, Becky picks up a history text. It’s not a workbook, so her son writes his answers in a spiral notebook. Becky plans to reuse the book with her daughter next year, and then she’ll sell it.

Take this quiz and write down your answers. Then take it again after reading this article. Answers are at the end of the article.

As a whole, homeschoolers are a thrifty bunch. Feeding, clothing, and educating a family—usually on one income—presents challenges, and prudent moms are always searching for ways to save.

To cut curriculum costs, homeschoolers share e-books, scour used curriculum sales, or copy fill-in-the-blank workbooks. Confused by copyrights, they’re often unaware that some of these activities are legal . . . and some are not.

The Issue of Ownership

In our world, the concept of ownership goes something like this: I bought it. It’s mine. Therefore, I can use it any way I want.

However, there are laws that supersede personal ownership. For example:

  • It’s illegal to park next to a fire hydrant even when you own the car.
  • Though you’re the owner, your homeowner’s association can forbid you to paint your house blue.

We understand these laws. We may not like them, but we typically obey.

Why, then, is it so hard to wrap our heads around copyright?

Maybe because we’re dealing with something intangible: creations of the mind known as intellectual property.

According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, intellectual property like a book, e-book, or CD “is an asset just like your home, your car, or your bank account. Just like other kinds of property, intellectual property needs to be protected from unauthorized use.”

Copyright is an ownership right that falls under the umbrella of intellectual property. The copyright owner—not the purchaser of the product—has the legal right to determine how the work is copied and distributed. You may own the physical workbook, but if you don’t own the copyright, you can’t legally make copies without the publisher’s permission.

Copy Rights & Wrongs

Who wants to be called a pirate or a criminal? Yet each time we make an unauthorized copy of a worksheet or DVD, we’re taking something that’s not ours: We’re engaging in the illegal act of piracy and stealing the copyright owner’s rights to the work.

As Christians, most of us would never dream of stealing, yet we often find ways to justify crossing that copyright line:

Money is so tight.
Moral truths do not change with personal circumstances. Don’t let your financial situation dictate your morality or your actions. It takes creativity to find curriculum frugally, but you can educate without compromising your integrity. If finances are an issue, use websites like Freelyeducate.com, homeschoolcollegeusa.com, or Homeschool4Free.net to plan a low- or no-cost education for your children.

My kids didn’t write in the book.
This is the single least-known and least-understood copyright rule. Unless the publisher gives permission for purchasers to make multiple copies, you must buy a separate workbook for each child. Whether your children write directly in the workbook, on notebook paper, or use an acetate overlay, a consumable workbook that has been used in any way, even if no writing appears on its pages, is still “used” and may not be reused without violating copyright law.

What about “partly used” workbooks?
Noted intellectual-property attorney Susan Spann says: “It is permissible to use the unused portions of the workbook (minus the used pages) for another child. The used portions should be discarded. Also, it is legal to give a workbook to someone else if you only used a few pages, but you should remove the used pages from the book to ensure the new owner does not violate copyright by reusing the pages.”

I want to preserve the original and resell it.
Only non-consumable textbooks may be resold or shared. You can legally make one archival copy of a copyrighted work in case the original is destroyed, but “archival copies can’t be used as ‘second copies’ or given away to another person,” says Susan Spann.

I don’t think it’s unethical to photocopy workbooks. Just because they’re sold as a consumable resource doesn’t mean they need to be used as a consumable.
The US Copyright Office states: “There shall be no copying of or from works intended to be ‘consumable.’” We can certainly have personal beliefs about this sensitive topic, but what we “feel” or “think” does not trump the law. We’re obligated to use the materials as specified by the copyright.

Spann adds, “Although the physical book belongs to the buyer, the intellectual property rights (including the right to control copying) … belong to the copyright holder. Illegal copying is infringement regardless of the purchaser’s contrary belief.”

The publisher charges too much.
If a product is out of my price range, I have the right not to purchase it. I don’t have the right to devise a plan to get that product illegally.

Sadly, we have little idea what publishing entails. We don’t see the hours spent researching and writing curriculum. We don’t realize what it costs to hire a graphic designer, to print books, to advertise, or to exhibit at conventions. We only know we bought a $30 workbook and want the freedom to make copies as we please.

Consider: “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7), and that includes writers and publishers too. They have every right to make a living from product sales, and we do them a disservice—as well as a legal wrong—each time we copy or share their work improperly.

The publisher is unreasonable. What harm can come from using this with all my kids?
A consumable workbook cannot be shared by siblings without the publisher’s permission. Copyright law requires buying a workbook for each child unless the workbook itself says otherwise.

Grumble though we may, it’s not our call to determine the fairness of a copyright license. If we don’t like the publisher’s policy—or aren’t willing to abide by it—we must choose a different curriculum that grants permission to make unlimited copies.

Speaking of permission, don’t be afraid to ask! Many small publishers will gladly work with homeschoolers.

Copyright and the Christian

For Christian homeschoolers, here are some additional thoughts.

Copyright is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, but God expects us to obey the laws of the land. “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” (I Peter 2:13). Paul adds that we don’t abide by the law just to avoid punishment, “but also as a matter of conscience” (Romans 13.5).

Titus says: “[B]e subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient … showing every consideration for all men” (Titus 3:1-2), and “be careful to engage in good deeds” (Titus 3:8).

Engaging in “good deeds” (respecting copyrights) and “showing every consideration for [authors and publishers]” honors God and demonstrates our willingness to subject ourselves to authorities placed over us.

God calls Christians to the highest standard. Ignoring copyright law dishonors Him and damages our testimony. Is that frugal—but illegal—stack of copies really worth it?

Kim Kautzer, veteran homeschooler and author of WriteShop, loves to help parents feel more confident about teaching writing. The Kautzers live in Southern California, where they enjoy their empty nest and seven spunky grandchildren.

Visit HomeschoolCopyright.com for fair-use guidelines and many helpful links.

Answers to sidebar “Is This Legal?” quiz: 1. No. 2. No. 3. No. 4. No. 5. Yes.


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