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Teaching Copyright in the Age of Computers and Mashups

Audrey Watters

Education technology journalist
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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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    Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

    Kathy Schrock's picture
    Kathy Schrock
    Educational technologist

    I have tried a backward approach (in addition to the regular ways) of teaching respect for the intellectual property of others. In my district, I developed a "permission to use student work" form that teachers had to give to students if the teacher wanted to keep great student work to share with other students, if the teacher needed classwork to submit as part of a grad course, if the teacher wanted to use it in a presentation, or if the school wanted to use it as a sample of student work for re-accreditation purposes. Form located here.

    The idea was to get students to understand that explicit permission was needed to use the work of others outside of the fair use guidelines. We were hoping to make them understand, when they were not using Creative Commons-licensed materials, that permission from the creator needed to be obtained, just as we were obtaining their permission to use their creative content.

    Zoe's picture
    Kindergarten teacher, Yokohama International School Japan.

    Kindergarten students love to learn about and use copyright. I generally start off by taking an item off a child e.g. hair clip. I wear it and look very happy with it. When they ask for it back or look surprised, I tell them I wanted it, so I took it. You get the idea... so do they VERY FAST! They hunt for copyright signs in books. I generally creates copyright fiends!

    Children made a stop-motion film and licensed it to creative commons. Savvy 5 and 6 year olds also made a audiobook which they sold (for charity). They copyrighted this all rights reserved.

    Aubrey,thank you, especially liked your Scratch example.
    Kathy, excellent permission to use idea, making it meaningful to students and teachers... who are not always the best with copyright!
    Thank you,I have learned lots from your great sharing on your blog.

    Monique's picture gives great examples on how to teach students copyright. I found the lesson on remix culture, mashups, and copyright to be informative and interactive. The site provides videos, definitions and numerous activities. One in particular is a Stakeholder worksheet pertaining to the issue of music downloading and peer-to-peer file sharing. Students love music and having something that they relate to, to understand the concept is a great idea.

    Ahmed Alhamada's picture

    I think it is very important to protect authors' right to get advantage from their workings. The main aim of this law is to encourage inventers to keep making new and high-quality works. In other words, protecting writers' rights helps them to earn more money, which makes them do their best to produce more works. In case, there is no law to protect their rights, they are not able to get enough money, so they stop creating new things to find another income. However, teachers, must explain to their students that copyright violating is similar to thieving, illustrate to them the importance of this law and the benefits of it. Furthermore, it essential to direct them to diverse places to get legitimate works for free. One way is searching creative common website. The majority of learners, who use illegal contents, do not have any idea about it. Most of them are not willing to use illegal materials if they know about creative common. Another way is using public libraries which have a lot to offer for free, such as audio books, e-books, DVDs... etc. If a student knows these ways, there is no reason for them to violate this law.

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