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Media Literacy

How to Teach Copyright and Fair Use to Students

When you model proper use of online images and text, students can learn how to protect themselves—and respect the work of others.

April 9, 2021
A sixth-grade English teacher helps two students during Sutton Middle School’s International Baccalaureate immersion day
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

When it comes to teaching copyright to students, many teachers blanch, largely because their own understanding of the nuances of copyright and fair use is less than perfect. But when students create, produce, share, and search digital information every day, it’s important that they practice good digital citizenship—including knowing how to respect the work of others and protect their own.

Armed with knowledge, tools, and resources, students can safely follow the rules as they infuse their learning with digital information.

Be a Good Role Model

You don’t need to be an expert in copyright law to be a good role model when it comes to copying or using other people’s work; you just need to be mindful, well-informed of what’s relevant for teachers, and transparent in your practice.

Let your students know that the overall goals of copyright protection and fair use is to incentivize more creative output and to create an open environment where creators are respected and celebrated, and make a point of discussing your own process of preparing materials for teaching.

When you use an image or a text created by someone else, be transparent with your students about your process for making sure you’re in the clear. If, for example, you have an image embedded in a deck or in the banner of your Google Classroom that you got from Unsplash or the Noun Project, or you’ve copied and distributed a work from Project Gutenberg or information from a government website, take a few minutes to explain why you can use that material, as well as how you know you’re in the clear—share with them the basics of the rules (e.g., “Every creative work has an invisible ‘no trespassing’ sign on it”), as well as your process for ensuring that you aren’t infringing on a copyright.

Walk your students through how you look at licenses to determine what the rules are on various images. Be sure to include the fact that sometimes, based on the license that a creator chose for their work, you have to settle for an image that isn’t your first choice.

Empower Your Students as Creators

Students often best understand the importance of copyright and fair use if you contextualize it. Celebrate them as creators who produce original work every day; emphasize that they own their work and that it is deserving of respect and protection.

Start by introducing them to the vocabulary of copyright, right down to the legal language, so that they understand that any original creative work, digital or nondigital, is protected. Then, ask them to sign their work and tell them that rather than turning it in, they will share it with their classmates.

Offer them a choice of how they want their work shared: displayed in the classroom, shared in paper copies, or shared digitally. Explain that each of them, as a creator, has the right to decide how the work is shared in public but that within an educational context (their classroom), the teacher can share student work. Discussing how their rights are covered by copyright (including within the context of education settings) helps them build their understanding of ownership and take pride in their work.

From there, you can discuss how the creator of an image found on Google would feel about someone else using their work without acknowledging them. That lays the groundwork for respecting the work of others and cultivates empathy.

Licenses for Student Work

Take it a step further and guide students through creating licenses for their work. Older students can turn to the usage licenses found on Creative Commons and adapt them. Have them go through the process of uploading work directly to Creative Commons; they will have to decide how they want their work shared and attach the appropriate license.

For younger students, you can create two or three usage options using emojis or images to represent them. For instance, a smiley face can mean “share with everyone,” a thumbs-up can indicate that you need to ask permission, and a thumbs-down can signify that they would prefer that the work not be shared. You can also create stamps with different emojis or images so they can easily attach a “license” to their work.

Student-Created Resources

Have your students curate a list of websites that offer pictures, photos, or music that are free to use. Creative Commons should be the first site on this list. Creative Commons allows authors to standardize permission and manage their own copyright, and using Creative Commons resources highlights for students the importance of using work with clear permission from the creator.

Students can review the six types of licenses that creators can choose from. Discuss the differences among them, and explain why sometimes you need to include an attribution and sometimes it is unnecessary.

The students’ curated list can be a shared resource that grows as your class completes new projects that require the use of new media. For instance, if they create a digital book review where they use background music, free music sources might be added to the list. This living list should serve as their first point of access when searching for images, text, music, or any outside sources.

To get students more acquainted with fair use, have them consider the following questions when they are using  others' creative work in a class project:

  • Are they using the work in a new way or just replicating someone else’s creation?
  • How much are they using? The whole work or a small portion?
  • Can how they used the work hurt the creator’s ability to make an income?

There are numerous resources and lessons that you can find to help strengthen this foundational understanding of copyright and fair use. Common Sense Media, the well-known nonprofit that provides age-based media consumption advice and reviews, offers an extensive Digital Citizenship curriculum including videos, lesson plans, and printouts by topic and grade level; it encompasses all topics that fall under the digital citizenship umbrella, so its lessons on fair use are fairly broad. The organization I work with, Copyright & Creativity, offers age-appropriate, in-depth lessons that promote a positive approach to respecting creative work, including engaging videos for K–12 and Google Slide decks you can adapt to suit your needs. Used together, materials from both organizations support the ISTE Standards for Students by empowering students to be safe and conscientious while navigating the digital world.

Most important, make discussion of copyright and fair use routine: The more opportunities students have on a daily basis to interact with the principles of copyright and fair use, the more natural it will become.

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