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Learning at Home - Textbooks and Copyright

by Paul Nisbet

on Thu Jan 28, 2021

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With schools closed and students learning at home, how can teachers continue to teach with the textbooks purchased for use in class? Can we make copies for students to use at home? Can we distribute textbooks from the Books for All website?

Recently we've seen and heard of colleagues sharing PDFs of textbooks on social media, which may or may not have been downloaded from our Books for All web site,  and this blog attempts to clarify what's allowed under the copyright legislation.

Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, so if you are in any doubt, check with your local authority or senior management.

Learning at home

With most students now learning at home, it's important that they are provided with high quality curriculum resources, and if you have bought textbooks for use in class then you probably want to use these resources for teaching and learning at home. One option is to deliver the paper textbooks to pupils' homes, but in this digital environment, you might be thinking about digitising the textbooks and sharing them with your students via Teams, Google Classroom etc. You need to consider copyright before you do this.

School CLA licence

The copying of most textbooks in schools in any form is generally restricted under copyright legislation. You can't photocopy scan, photograph or re-type entire textbooks and give them out to the class. There are some dispensations however.

Scottish state and also independent schools have a licence from CLA that governs what can and can't be done with print and digital copyrighted materials. The CLA web site has full details of the licence, plus posters and leaflets you can download and share, and videos. The CLA Education Licence User Guidelines gives a good summary. Some materials are not covered by the CLA licence and you can check with the CLA Check Permissions tool.

The CLA licence allows us to copy 5% or one article or one chapter of a book - whichever is greater - and give that to our learners or share it on the whiteboard.

So we can't scan or digitise a whole book and post it on social media, Team or Google Classrom for the whole class to access. It's just as illegal as photocopying a whole book for the class.

CLA Education Platform

CLA have worked with publishers to create the Education Platform which gives access to a digital version of textbooks provided you own a paper copy. It saves us scanning or taking a photo of the paper textbook. We are still limited to copying 5% or a chapter of the book.


Some publishers are now selling eTextbooks, and so this is one way to provide digital textbooks to our students or for parents to buy digital textbooks for personal use. Some publishers also have digital platforms with eTextbooks or online resources to complement their paper materials. Check out the publisher web site to find out what's available.

Pupils with a Print Disability

The 5% or one chapter limit doesn't apply if we are making an accessible copy for a pupil with a print disability. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (as amended) allows us to create and provide an "accessible copy" of a textbook to a learner who

who has a physical or mental impairment which prevents the person from enjoying a copyright work to substantially the same degree as a person who does not have that impairment

An accessible copy is a version of the work that enables a disabled person to read it. If you have a learner in your class who can't read the paper book due to for example, a visual impairment, dyslexia or physical disability, you can give them an accessible copy in a different format. This could be:

  • a Large Print version for a pupil with a visual impairment; 
  • a Braille version for a learner with sight loss; 
  • a digital version for a student with dyslexia to access with a computer reader or a pupil with a physical disability to access on computer or tablet;
  • an audio version for a student with visual or reading difficulties.

This video shows one learner using an accessible maths book:

Creating an accessible copy takes time and skills so to save us the trouble there are three free online databases from where we can download digital and accessible copies for pupils with print disabilities. It's worth setting up accounts with all three.

Books for All

RNIB Bookshare

The National Accessible Library

The books are provided under the Copyright Act and/or permission from the publisher and can only be used by learners with a print disability. RNIB Bookshare is the largest resource (> 600,000 titles) and has digital files from most of the UK school textbooks publishers.

Can I display an accessible book on the whiteboard?

Only if everyone who is viewing it has a print disability.

Can I share an accessible book with other teachers via social media or the internet?

No. You can't legally post it up on Facebook, OneDrive or Google Drive for any teacher to download and use with their class. We have the responsibility to take reasonable steps to make sure the accessible copies are only used by pupils with print disabilities. If another teacher requires an accessible copy they should sign up with the providers above and download a copy for their learner.  

Can pupils access accessible copies at home?

Yes, you can share an accessible copy with a student at home provided it is done securely and is only made available to that learner. RNIB Bookshare and Books for All both have mechanisms where you can provide access to books for learners at home.

 What does a Print Disability mean in practice?

The legislation defines a disabled person as a person who "has a physical or mental impairment which prevents the person from enjoying a copyright work to substantially the same degree as a person who does not have that impairment".

Learners do not need to be registered disabled or to have been assessed as being dyslexic or having any other condition.

In practice, we're usually thinking about a pupil who has a:

  • Visual Impairment (that cannot be addressed through ordinary spectacles);
  • Learning disability (such as dyslexia, Autism or other learning difficulty);
  • Physical disability (that prevents the person from handling or manipulate a book, or track text when reading).

What's to prevent me downloading and sharing an accessible book with learners who don't have a print disability?

Conscience and professional ethics? Risk of prosecution by the publishers and rightsholders? Because if you do the publishers might stop sharing their files?

The reason I'm writing this is because we used to have PDFs of textbooks from Hodder Gibson, TeeJay and BrightRED on Books for All, but all three publishers asked us to take them down because they had evidence of teachers printing them out or sharing them digitally for general use. Our most popular book was the accessible copy of TeeJay Book 1a which we adapted with answer boxes for learners to type answers on screen.

screen shot of TeeJay maths book

Hodder have permitted us to keep that title available along with TeeJay National 5, but we have had to take the others down, which means that learners with print disabilities no longer have access to these accessible copies.

I originally adapted books in this way for a young man with cerebral palsy who couldn't handwrite and I know from personal experience how brilliant these books can be for pupils with disabilities so it's a real loss, particularly for children and young people learning at home. You can still get TeeJay and Hodder Gibson books from RNIB Bookshare, but they don't have the on-screen answer boxes.

Do get in touch if there are other questions about accessible copies that you'd like to ask.

Tags: accessible books, copyright, books for all

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