Tech Tidbit #3: 21st Century Copyrighting

The following was submitted by Jeff Moore 11.30.2007

I can hear the yawns already. Every so often, somebody looking to grind an ax grabs hold of copyright. The response is always the same. Educators are protected under the “fair use” doctrine.

True, “fair use” provisions in copyright law protect educators to a certain extent (see attached), but perhaps not as much as you think when it comes to new media. And by “new media,” I mean “everything after and including cable television.”

(Heads up, Moodle users. All of those restrictions on posting and reposting content to the Internet pertain to you.)

With today’s students, the issue is even more complicated than the attached chart suggests. We already recognize that students have access to more intellectual property (copyrighted and not) than ever before. The saturation of content, and the unprecedented ability to share it, are both interesting and confounding to educators. Students can find and often contribute information on just about anything. Unfortunately, students are often more adept at transferring and copying that information than they are at dealing with it. I’m not just referring to plagiarism, here. Ask ten of your students for a DVD of a hot new movie that’s still in the theatres or not even released yet. Odds are good that at least half of them will be able to deliver that “bootleg” to you before homeroom the very next day. That’s theft, ladies and gentlemen.

(So, don’t really ask them to do it.)

But the saturation and access facilitated by technology give a little weight to the argument that students don’t know that they’re perpetrating theft. Who taught them? What are the chances that all of the boundary-setting adults in our students’ lives really understand the technology as much as our students understand it? Add “the ethics and responsibilities of consuming intellectual property” to the list of “other” things that we all have to teach.

Let’s consider fair use and the attached chart once again. Instead of worrying about all of the things that you’re not allowed to do, notice all of the things that you are allowed to do that would land regular folks in a heap of trouble. Notice that students have some extra latitude, too. Great news, that.

But there appears to be some tension, here. Are we reinforcing bad habits by allowing students to gussy up their PowerPoint presentations with photos from the web, no questions asked? Fair use allows students to do this in most cases, but there’s no valid object lesson in the rules of the “real world.” And what about our own practice? When we distribute content that we’ve legally copied, should we take the time to explain fair use to our students so that they understand the differences between the educational context and “the street” when it comes to intellectual property? Maybe.

I’ve spoken to several teachers who are beginning to use “alternative licensing” to address this issue with students. We’re all used to seeing the copyright symbol at the bottom of just about everything we read and watch. Some folks, however, are starting notice something new on the web: a “creative commons” statement in place of a copyright symbol.

The creative commons license is an alternative to both traditional copyright and public domain. Creative commons recognizes that technology has forced the need for a more flexible solution. Maybe some information develops more quickly if we’re free to share and build upon it. So, in many cases, content creators use the creative commons license to allow anyone (not just teachers and students) to copy and distribute intellectual property with far fewer restrictions than traditional copyright would impose.

Consider that student PowerPoint. You might tell students that they’re allowed to use images from the web in their PowerPoints, but only if those images are available under a creative commons license that allows consumers to freely distribute those images. Students wouldn’t be breaking the law to do otherwise (usually), but they might not be learning anything about intellectual property.

How would students find creative commons licensed images? Students can actually use the tools that they already use to find any kind of content on the web.

Go to:

(Copy/paste that link if clicking on it doesn’t work.)

Then, click on the “Search” button at the top of the web page.

Notice that you can now search for creative commons content in Google, Flickr, and other familiar places. Not too long ago, I used this search tool to find a Gregorian chant for a teacher who wanted something more than just a short excerpt for a PowerPoint.

Next step: students publish their own intellectual property under a creative commons license. Or maybe they’d rather choose traditional copyright. Or public domain. Talk about an object lesson in intellectual property!

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