Copyright in the Classroom: A Complicated Relationship

This year I was introduced to Creative Commons by a teacher at my new school. I really wanted to figure out how I could/should incorporate it into my classes, particularly the digital storytelling elective I was teaching. I spent large amounts of time trying to wrap my head around Creative Commons, copyright and Fair Use since my students would be using digital media. I was trying to find a simple, straightforward way to explain it to my students and it was really hard. Additionally, there didn’t seem to be any generally accepted guidelines among the teachers. We do have a 6-12 scope and sequence regarding citations and sources (what students should be able to know and do by certain grade levels) but it doesn’t say much about digital media**.  Needless to say, I felt like I was floundering around trying to get a handle on this. I did find some guidance while researching digital storytelling to develop my elective. I repeatedly found myself in a section of Jason Ohler‘s website “Art, Storytelling, Technology and Education”.  He includes a section on Copyright and fair use in education and decided for the sake of time (and my sanity) to use the information Mr. Ohler provided as my main source of guidance.

Although Mr. Ohler does a good job trying explaining the complex world of copyright , it’s implication in education and even providing guidelines, he admits that there is still a lot of ‘gray area’. He writes, “The information on this site is not intended to be used as legal guidance. Rather it should be used simply to help you develop your own perspective about copyright and fair use issues as they relate to your professional practice.”  And that’s the impression I’ve gotten from various articles I’ve read. Lots of people offer ideas and guidelines and suggestions, but there’s no real consensus on specifics. On the other hand, this might be a bit easier if I was still in a school in the U.S. Being at an international school brings up other issues that complicate it even further. A lot of what I’ve read on copyright is based on U.S. laws and court cases.

So, in an effort to make it workable in my classroom, I decided to take Mr. Ohler’s advice and develop my “own perspective” and develop some expectations for my students in my classroom. I decided to introduce my students to Creative Commons as a source and talk with them about copyright. I found showing them photos on was a great place to start. Since there are both copyrighted and Creative Commons photographs, we could take a look at photos and they could find out what the permission was for different images. I then adapted some Fair Use guidelines for the class projects which basically puts limits on the amount of copyrighted work they can use and that they must cite all sources of information and media. I felt this was a good start for myself and my middle school students. We had some basic conversations about copyright, Creative Commons and Fair Use but I also warned them that as they progress through high school and university, they will have to pay very close attention to expectations regarding using others’ works and creations. Now, I feel better that I’ve made an effort to learn more and address these issues with my students during this school year. I am more prepared to educate my students about this complex issue and tighten up my expectations (more Creative Commons/permission to use and less Fair Use or ‘okay as long as cited’). I have accepted that copyright and education is a complex issue and I  will never fully comprehend all the parts of it  or be truly confident that I am within the law(s) but at least I am making the effort to educate my students about it and make it part of the expectations in my classroom.

**I am happy to report that after a recent discussion our Humanities department intends to make sure we incorporate more about digital media in our Citation Scope and Sequence so that our students (and teachers) are more equipped to deal with how we use others’ works and creations.

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3 Responses to Copyright in the Classroom: A Complicated Relationship

  1. Joe Winston says:

    I feel a lot of us in the international education community are in the same boat. Being in different countries, there isn’t one place to go and find the answer to, “Can I use this or not?” Making the effort to educate our students (and colleagues) about fair use and copyrighting policy is where we need to be progressing. Many teachers aren’t aware that the examples they create and use to model for the students are breaking copyright laws.
    to be useful with my colleagues. You can see if it assists your Humanities departments goal.

  2. I also tried to “find my way” through copyright, CC and fair use. I thought it would be easier to find clear answers, but it really was quite a challenge. The trouble is it really isn’t straightforward, so finding an easy way to explain it to students, is a challenge. I decided the most important thing to teach on this topic is that copyright is really unclear and for that reason we all need to be a lot more careful about what we are doing. I think confusion is actually something to embrace when it comes to copyright – as long as that confusion brings about discussion and the habit of asking “is this ok?” Having spent a year exploring this topic with my students in their music tech course in the middle school I feel both my students and I have our heads in a better place to figure out the best path when facing the grey areas. I feel good about hearing my students ask questions before they take from the internet. It sounds like you are facing the same realizations in your classroom and I think you should be pleased with that. Allowing students to face the reality that copyright, CC and fair-use matters are unclear, giving students strategies to problem-solve a solution to these dilemmas, and providing opportunities to practice facing these issues head-on, will better prepare students for their future. Your students are fortunate to have you guide them through the confusion! Kudos to you for your leadership!

  3. Julie Pyburn says:

    I’d agree, it’s disconcerting to find there aren’t hard and fast rules about what is allowed and what isn’t regarding copyright. It would help if individual schools had a policy and if that policy reflected the laws of the country the school was in. I think it’s better to model ‘when in Rome’ rather than just following what is law in the US. Since learning about the compfight site during this course I’ve been directing students there. I’ve been talking with our MS librarian about putting a collection of legal photo sites on our library web site, much like we have a collection of good reference site there for students to use. In World Studies my students have made quite a few vodcasts and their aim is to have these reach a wider audience than just the teacher and their peers. We’ve all realized that it we’re going to post our work anywhere on the internet then we have to be using legally acquired photos and the students ‘get’ this. My next decision is how should we cite these photos as part of our vodcasts. Is it best to link each photo to its original site or have a scrolling bibliography at the end. I think I favor the link idea, similar to our blogs.

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