Homeschooling, copyright, and consumable workbooks

homeschool copyright, copyright, consumable workbooks, worksheets, legal, frugal, photocopy

IT’S NOT easy navigating the muddy waters of copyright. For instance:

  • When is it legal to photocopy a workbook?
  • Is it okay to use an acetate overlay in order to keep workbook pages pristine?
  • Can I resell a workbook that my child used but didn’t actually write in?

Last fall, Practical Homeschooling magazine published a piece I wrote: When Frugal is Illegal. Recently, they added the article to their website, and it has created a flurry of controversy!

When Frugal Is Illegal: Avoiding the Copyright Trap

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 . . .

(Take the copyright quiz and read the complete article here.)

Let’s talk! Do you tend to respect or ignore copyrights?

I realize copyright is one of those hot-button topics that’s sure to ruffle a few feathers and stir up some passion. So please, let’s keep the discussion civil.

Copyright 2013 © by Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape


  • Posted April 18, 2013


    I abide as much as possible by copyright laws. We buy separate workbooks for each child etc. My mum drilled that into me as a kid – we never copied tapes (yes tapes) or other music forms. That said, I didn’t know that we were supposed to destroy the pages of a partially used workbook (or not use that used part for the next child) before handing on to another. Now I know. :).

    So here’s a question. If we had a physical book, we could lend it to a friend to look through and they physically hand it back? Is there some kind of way to legally do that with an e-book? I have in the past, forwarded something to my sister stating that she can look through it but if she wants it herself, I’d rather she purchase her own. Guessing now that that isn’t legal. Thoughts?

  • Posted April 18, 2013


    That’s a great question, Christie. When you loan a physical book to someone, there’s only one copy. It’s either in your possession or someone else’s. On the other hand, if you loan an e-book to your sister, let’s say, you’ve in essence duplicated the book: you still have a copy on your hard drive while your sister has a copy on hers.

    We might be able to look to Kindle as an example. Kindle only allows an e-book to be in the hands of one person at a time. I can loan a Kindle e-book to a friend for two weeks, but during that time, it’s unavailable to me on my own device. Software licenses operate in a similar fashion, with the copyright allowing you to install certain software on only one computer at a time.

    My understanding is that most e-books’ copyrights specify that the books can’t be shared. I’m not an attorney and have no idea where to draw that line or whether it’s OK for you to delete the e-book from your hard drive during the time your sister is looking it over.

    I do know that Amazon offers free previews of most Kindle books. Also, many curriculum companies offer free sample lessons for viewing before purchasing.

    Hope that helps!

  • Posted July 27, 2013

    D in CO

    I’m very careful about observing copyright law. I do however have some question about the statements by the PH author about workbooks. After reading her article, I went through everything I could find regarding the law, including statements by the House and Senate Committees on the most recent versions of the law. What I see is this: Teachers are not allowed to make copies of or from workbooks and other consumable materials. I do not see anywhere, in ANY of the legal references I read, anything that says teachers are not allowed to have students write their answers to workbook exercises in a notebook or on an acetate sheet. And in fact I am familiar with a number of school districts that do distribute workbooks with labels saying “Do not write in this book.”

    I know there are many authors who would prefer that people not re-use workbooks. I also have heard of one who insists that people do not have the right to re-sell their books. Just because someone insists they have certain rights does not mean the law gives them those rights. I won’t buy books from the author who insists I can’t buy her books used or re-sell them – she is simply wrong, no matter what she would like to be true. And I’m not convinced on the issue of workbooks here; it’s clear we’re not allowed to photocopy workbooks, but having a student write answers on paper and then re-using the book is questionable. And where do we draw the line – is it permissible to have the student give the answers orally, and then re-use it with another student?

    Just my thoughts, for what they are worth.

  • Posted July 28, 2013

    Joel “Jaykul” Bennett

    Yeah, I don’t know where this started, but the italicized text in the original article seems to be simple fiction as far as I can tell. There are hundreds of copyright guidelines published by colleges, universities and schools throughout the US, and I can’t find any which talk about having multiple people read things. Although there are occasional prohibitions on having workbooks on course reserve, most simply cite the “Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians” circular. [1]

    That circular clearly says: “There shall be no copying of or from works intended to be ‘consumable’ in the course of study or of teaching” but I don’t see copying in the described use (where students are writing answers on separate sheets of paper).

    Additionally, the word “consumable” doesn’t appear in the actual US Copyright Law. [2] It’s placed in the workbook in reference to instances of COPYING INSTEAD OF BUYING. But again, I fail to see how having kids write their answers elsewhere constitutes copying.

    Do you know of any institution which has published guidelines as strict as what you’ve written? Or have you heard of any legal action based on the situations you describe as illegal?

    It’s one thing to say: you can’t copy this.
    It’s another thing to say you can’t have multiple people read this.


    • Posted August 3, 2013


      1. Unlike homeschools, school districts often pay licensing fees in order to have the ability to reuse those workbooks with multiple students. This is the reason why the district can have the students write on other paper and reuse the volumes.

      2. Parents don’t have to let students write in a book, but the law does say that consumable products (unlike textbooks, which are designed for reuse) can be sold on a “one-time license” basis, and that if the books are sold in that manner it’s a violation to reuse them. In other words, the book is being used, whether or not the student actually writes in it.

      Ultimately, customers must make a decision to honor copyright. If they want to share a workbook with multiple children, it is incumbent on them to buy workbooks whose copyright permits this—and there are plenty that do (our own WriteShop products included).

  • Posted August 7, 2013


    There used to be a section in the Fair Use Act part of the Copyright law that said it was allowable to make a certain number of copies for personal use only if you were the original owner. At one time, I put that in a document so I could share it when the issue came up, but I can’t find it. But I’m not finding any mention of this online or in the Copyright law now. Has this changed?

  • Posted August 7, 2013


    Suzanne: As I understand it, fair use allows for copying a small portion of a work for educational purposes, such as one poem from an anthology or a few paragraphs from a book. Fair use isn’t intended to substitute for buying additional copies of the product.

    I do know that you can make an archival copy of a workbook or CD, just in case something should happen to the original. But the archival copy can’t be used in addition to the original; it’s just a backup.

    Many homeschool publishers allow parents to make multiple copies of workbooks for their own family’s use, so if a particular product’s copyright disallows photocopying, and the parent does not want to buy additional workbooks, she should be able to find plenty of alternative resources that do allow copying.

    Also, here’s a helpful tool called Thinking Through Fair Use that guides you determine whether your intended use of a work is in the realm of fair use.

    Hope this helps!

  • Posted August 30, 2013

    Crystal @ Serving Joyfully

    I am diligent about respecting copyright, but you brought up points that I was unaware of (specifically, placing worksheets in sheet protectors). I had no idea that was a violation of copyright. I enjoyed your article, but was disappointed in the lack of reference/citation. Can you provide that for those of us who would like first hand clarification? I would love to see for myself exactly what the laws say that you refer to. Thanks!

  • Posted August 31, 2013


    So are you saying a workbook that someone used one page of and then didn’t want can’t be resold?

  • Posted August 31, 2013


    Crystal: My response to your excellent question is turning into a full-blown article! When the article goes live, I’ll link to it from this post.

  • Posted August 31, 2013


    Aurora: You’re not supposed to resell a workbook that was mostly or completely used. But if only a page or two were used, reselling it is OK. It’s best, though, to remove those pages before reselling.

  • Posted May 13, 2014


    Did you ever get to writing that other article? As others mentioned, I too have researched the actual law and educational guidelines and find no restrictions on some of the things in your Practical Homeschooling article.

    Copyright law is concerned only with copying and not wether you have “used” a book.

    There is no restriction of reselling a consumable book, even if it has been fully written in. That does not constitute copying the work. Of course, you may NOT make a copy of it for your child’s school records and then resell it.

    There is no restriction on writing on another sheet of paper or using an overlay. That does not constitute copying the work. It is only a violation if the student writes the questions or other material from the book along with his own answers.

    These things do not even come under educational fair use guidelines because no copying of the work is occurring.

    The idea that books can be sold under a one-time license that you mentioned above is not covered in copyright law. Books can be sold by whatever license you like as long as both parties agree to the terms before the sale.

    In the same way, there is also a problem with saying “it is incumbent on them to buy workbooks whose copyright permits this”.

    A publisher can’t just make any old statement that goes above and beyond copyright protections and have it be law. Copyright covers specific things and that’s it. You can’t add restrictions beyond what the law says, such as no resale or you must buy one for every student or you can’t write on another sheet of paper, unless the buyer agrees to those additional terms before the sale.

    However, a publisher can relax its rights and allow additional use, such as permission to copy within a household, because that does not add restrictions to the law. That is how licenses such as Creative Commons work–it is copyrighted with some rights relaxed by the owner.

    Unfortunately, the Practical Homeschooling article is being passed around and people are confused by the parts that are not accurate. It would be great to have the article corrected because I fear that the good and right parts are getting ignored as homeschoolers toss out the whole thing as false.

  • Posted May 13, 2014

    Kim Kautzer

    Doug, I truly appreciate your insight and comments. Believe me, I know this is a controversial topic, and some of us will never see eye to eye on the subject.

    Please rest assured that I didn’t simply make assumptions or try to twist the law. Before PHS Magazine published the article, all the information contained therein was verified by an attorney whose specialty is intellectual property and copyright law. Therefore, I will continue to stand behind the article.

  • Posted August 21, 2014


    It is nice that you’re deciding to stand behind your article, but some citation to to the actual portion of the law you are referring to would be appropriate and required if you are trying to persuade others to your point. Quoting a lawyer you consulted, who is interpreting the law, is not a valid authority in this circumstance unless you also cite the court case in which the issue was law was tested. I’ve seen many cases where 10 different lawyers interpret the same law in a myriad of different ways. I personally don’t re-use workbooks, but only because it is more convenient to let my kids write in their workbooks and money is not an issue – not because I believed it was illegal.

  • Posted December 3, 2015


    I found this information surprising, so I did some research culminating with contacting the US Copyright Office and the UK Intellectual Property Office (the government departments responsible for copyright law in those two countries). They both stated that there in nothing in copyright law in their respective countries regarding “consumable” books.

  • Posted June 27, 2016


    Can i copy a workbook i purchased if i used the copy myself? the original got damaged

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