Definition and Overview

Digital law is "the electronic responsibility for actions and deeds" (Ribble, 2011, p. 31). It encompasses legal topics such as intellectual property and copyright law, as well as issues regarding appropriate use (e.g. plagiarism).

Intellectual property refers to creative works including, but not limited to, literature, music, movies, software, and art. Copyright laws were created to protect the intellectual property of individuals for a limited amount of time, and to encourage creativity (Purdue University Copyright Office, 2009). Copyright law prevents the reproduction, distribution, modification, performance, etc. of another individual's intellectual property.

"Facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation" (U.S. Copyright Office, 2012, para. 1) cannot be copyrighted.

Copyrighted material can be identified by a copyright symbol (©) or the word "copyright," followed by the author's name and year of publication. However, the absence of either of these does not mean that the material is not copyrighted.

Some people choose to allow others to use their intellectual property, with certain restrictions, via a Creative Commons copyright license. Creative Commons was developed in response to a conflict that was occurring between the universal access that the Internet provides and the default setting of copyright laws. These default settings prevented educators and librarians (among others) from using content without explicit permission from the copyright holder. Creative Commons licenses provide permission to use intellectual property in advance, with details as to how the material can and cannot be used.

In the absence of a Creative Commons license, educators and students can refer to fair use laws to determine whether or not use of copyright material is legal. Fair use refers to whether or not the use of copyrighted material is determined to be fair, such as when it is used for purposes of teaching and scholarship.

Copyright and plagiarism are not the same thing, although copyrighted material can be plagiarized. Copyright infringement occurs when copyrighted material is used without permission. Plagiarism occurs when someone steals another individual's work or ideas and passes them off as his/her own.

Learn More

  1. Complete the Using Information Correctly: Avoiding Plagiarism tutorial.
  2. Complete the Using Information Correctly: Copyright and Fair Use tutorial.
  3. Watch this video on Creative Commons:

Show What You Know

Resources for Teachers and Kids

Checklist for Fair Use
Teaching Copyright (Curriculum for Educators)


Purdue University Copyright Office. (2009). Copyright overview. Retrieved from

Ribble, M. (2011). Digital citizenship in schools. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

U.S. Copyright Office. (2012). What does copyright protect? Retrieved from