Education Law

Legal Issues in Lesson Plans

Lesson plans are critical for teachers. They outline and detail how an instructor will go about teaching her students a particular course or subject matter. While teachers have a lot of leeway in how and when to develop lesson plans, there are some legal issues to be aware of, such as copyright problems and what needs to be included in the plans.


Copyrights cover all sorts of materials, like books, magazine articles, musical compositions and artwork. They give the author, creator or owner of these materials legal rights when it comes to copying or reproducing, selling or displaying the materials without her permission.

When it comes to lesson plans, copyright comes into play in two ways:

Fair Use. The federal copyright law allows the use of copyrighted materials for educational purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research. This is called "fair use." When writing your lesson plan and preparing to teach a particular course or topic, you can copy and use a variety of copyrighted materials without violating the law, such as:

  • Newspaper articles
  • Chapters or portions of chapters from books (but not the entire book)
  • One poem, so long it's no longer than 250 words
  • Articles, stories and essays, so long as they're not longer than 2,500 words
  • One chart, graph, diagram, drawing, cartoon or picture from a book, magazine or newspaper

However, you can't copy and use:

  • The same copied materials for use in more than one class or course
  • "Consumable" materials, such workbooks (or sheets from workbooks), exercises, standardized tests and test booklets and answer sheets

Who owns it? A recent phenomenon involves teachers and former teachers selling lesson plans, usually online. This raises a potential copyright problem, and the issue is who "owns" the lesson plan? You can't sell written material, including a lesson plan, unless you own it. Even though you may have written the plan, your school may be the actual owner.

The argument is this: Because you developed the plan for work to be used at work, your employer - the school - owns the plan. This is called the "work made for hire" exception to the general rule that the author or creator of copyrightable material is the legal owner of that material. If you have an employment contract with your school (and many teachers do), you should check it to see if it discusses who owns the lesson plans you write.

Some schools are reacting to the phenomenon. For example, in January 2010, a Pennsylvania school district approved a new policy making any material, including lesson plans, written or made by an employee of the school district, the property of the school district. As such, the material may be used only by the district's students and staff of the district, unless the school district gives permission for other uses. In other words, teachers can't sell their lesson plans without the district's permission.

Other Matters

There are some other legal issues you may need to know about when it comes to your lesson plans. For example, in some states, such as Texas, teachers must be given a certain amount of time to devote only to things like parent-teacher conferences and planning, which includes preparing, writing or revising lesson plans. Check the laws in your state to see if your entitled to preparation time.

What's in your plan? Generally, you have a lot of leeway when comes to deciding what goes into your lesson plan. However, your school district or employment contract may require you to include certain things. For instance, school districts typically are required by state law to meet student achievement rates and explain how students will be tested or assessed on their work and progress. Your lesson plan may have to include specifics on how and when your students will be tested, for example.

Is it your work? Plagiarism applies to teachers, too. If you copy another teacher's lesson plan without his permission or without giving credit to the teacher who wrote the plan, you may be plagiarizing. Such dishonesty could lead to a formal reprimand by your school or you may be fired.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • There's nothing in my contract with the school saying I can't sell my lesson plans. My school's principal told me I can't do it, but he can't tell me why or what rule I'd be breaking. Should I sell my plans anyway?
  • Can I charge my students for the costs photocopying materials I plan to use in my class?
  • If I work on lesson plans at my home during the summer, do I qualify for a home office tax deduction?
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