Technology Integration

Teaching Copyright in the Age of Computers and Mashups

Resources and reflections on the changing role of copyright

September 9, 2011

I wish I could say that teaching students about copyright is easy, because in a world where digital tools are making creating and sharing content easier than ever, understanding copyright is incredibly important. But intellectual property law is exceedingly complex, making even a nominal introduction to the ideas surrounding copyright -- copyright law, fair use, the public domain -- a challenge.

Google tried its hand earlier this year, launching YouTube Copyright School, an effort to educate the video-sharing site's users about intellectual property law. Of course, YouTube has long had to battle complaints and lawsuits -- most often from record labels and film studios -- that the video-sharing site is awash in copyright infringements. YouTube does take measures to pull content when an infringement claim is made, and it has had a longstanding policy to ban users who repeatedly post videos that violate copyright. Now, instead, it's sending them to Copyright School first.

Copyright School involves watching a 4-minute animation from Happy Tree Friends, then answering a series of multiple choice questions. For those unfamiliar with Happy Tree Friends, the cartoon characters have their own Web series which involves a lot of gibberish and mayhem. The short cartoons (yes, you can find them on YouTube) often end violently. Very violently. Say what you will about cartoon violence, but it's clear that these characters could appeal to a certain teenage demographic that may well be apt to upload infringing material.

But the popularity of Happy Tree Friends aside, 4 minutes is hardly long enough to teach the intricacies of copyright. And while the video starts with a pretty clear explanation of how copyright works (thankfully with the help of a narrator, rather than the cartoon characters' typical gibberish), when the video gets to the issues that most people probably do have questions about -- particularly fair use and mashups -- the narration runs into high speed, brushing over legalese like it's a joke. "Contact a copyright attorney" if you have questions or doubts about the legality of a piece of content, the video suggests.

"Contact a copyright attorney." That's hardly something most students can do, and it's hardly something teachers can say when questions about intellectual property are raised in their classes. There are a lot of online resources available, with ample explanations and exercises to help talk about copyright, it's also worth looking at copyright issues in context, not just as a separate curriculum unit.

One way of doing this is by encouraging students to explore mashups, particularly by working with openly-licensed content -- content that isn't copyrighted -- as they do so. Then, as students cite, excerpt, rework, and mash up this content, they can think about what re-use and fair use can mean. They can also explore what it means to have their work taken up by others. How much content has changed? Does the new content change the meaning of the old? Does it suit a different purpose? Does it change the market value of the original? All questions that that copyright attorney (and typically, a judge) looks at when gauging infringement.

This approach to intellectual property is something that the educational programming language Scratch has explored. Scratch is openly licensed, and when students upload their projects to the Scratch website, others are free to download and re-use their programs. Members of the Scratch community explore what it means to give attribution and credit to others, and as they're all creators, they understand what it "feels like" - - for lack of a better phrase -- to have your work copied and shared. And frankly, sometimes, they're not too thrilled with the idea.

These types of lessons help students understand what's at stake with copyright. It isn't simply about plagiarism or some publisher's rights or business. Rather, it's part of a bigger challenge of what it means to be creative and responsible in our digital world.

Educators, how have you helped students understand copyright law?

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  • Media Literacy
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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