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Consumer Warning

What I am about to discuss involves legal dos and don’ts. However, I am not a lawyer; I am simply someone who has had to deal with copyright issues from a business point of view for many years. That doesn’t mean I understand all the fine points of copyright law, or that I even know them. Remember, too, that copyright law can vary substantially from country to country. However, from my experience in the publishing industry I can provide some insights into how teachers can effectively work with books within both the spirit and rules of copyright as I understand them.


First, it’s important to recognize that the author (and/or the publisher) owns the material in that book just as you own your laptop or your car – and they feel the same way about it. Copying a book, or distributing all or part of it, is quite simply theft. It isn’t any less theft because the property is intellectual and not physical. That’s why books contain that rather ferocious notice about copying and reproduction on the copyright page. Actually, in these days of downloadable music and videos, I think most people are far more aware of the legalities in this area than they were, say, twenty years ago.

Having said that, there is embedded in US copyright law the concept of ‘fair use’ – a somewhat vague idea that basically says that there are some things you can do without asking permission even if you don’t own the work involved. One obvious one is quoting passages from a book for the purpose of illustration in a review. Another is using a short passage for teaching purposes in the classroom. So, for example, if you want to use a bridge deal from a book in a lesson, that’s all right. You can put it up on an overhead, or even give each of your students a copy. However, quantity is a criterion here, so if you copy several deals from a book, that may no longer be ‘fair use’. To qualify as ‘fair use’, what you’re doing has to meet several legal tests, one of which is that it doesn’t harm potential sales of the work. So if what you want to do is copy parts of a book so your students don’t have to buy it, it’s probably not kosher.

As an aside, you can’t actually copyright a bridge deal, even if you constructed it yourself for teaching purposes. The analogy is a cooking recipe – there’s a reason the formula for Coca Cola is a closely guarded secret. What is copyright is the actual write-up of the deal (or the cooking instructions). Copy that verbatim and you may be in trouble. But if you just want to use a neat deal you come across, and talk about it in your own words, go right ahead. Of course, it’s only polite to acknowledge the creator, especially if it’s a nice guy like Eddie Kantar, for example. (In fact, there’s a legal obligation too, involving something called the author’s ‘moral rights’, but I look at it as simple courtesy anyway.)

In the U.S.A. books go out of copyright (become ‘public domain’) 70 years after the death of the author or authors (that’s the simple version – you don’t want to know the complicated version, trust me). If a book is in the public domain (maybe you just love sharing with your students something by Florence Irwin or Madeleine Kerwin, written a hundred years ago), there’s no problem doing what you want with it (at least within your classroom). However, just because a book is out of print (no longer being published), that does not mean you have free access to it. The rights to an out of print book may still be owned by the author or publisher, even if it’s not currently available for sale anywhere. If you are not sure about whether what you want to do is legal, then your safest course is to contact the publisher and get permission.

Master Point Press publishes a number of books that are used by bridge teachers as texts, and we know that it’s very helpful to be able to hand out chapter summaries and quizzes to students. And don’t forget that selling books to your students can be a nice source of income for you as a teacher, too!