Resources > Article: Copyright in the Classroom: A Workshop for Educators

Copyright in the Classroom: A Workshop for Educators

When I was asked to develop a copyright workshop several years ago, I did so somewhat reluctantly. Copyright seemed like a dull subject. As I worked on the presentation, however, I found the opposite to be true: copyright was fascinating, controversial, and, with Napster just coming online, very much in the news. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension had been passed, and the Conference on Fair Use had ended without a real consensus. Copyright, which had barely been mentioned as part of my teacher education program just 15 years before, was suddenly showing up as part of newly adopted teacher technology competencies. Computers, the Internet, and the proliferation of VCRs have made copyright education a priority.

That first workshop focused specifically on Internet ethics: what materials could be used from the Internet and published on student and teacher Web pages. I also discussed plagiarism, emphasizing the point that as constructivist educators we should be redesigning assessments in a way that both encouraged critical and creative thinking while making plagiarism difficult. For instance, students might use their research into the Civil War to write journal entries or news articles from the period. Rather than assigning a three-page paper, teachers might require a multimedia slide show, a format that makes copy and paste virtually impossible.

The Computer Ethics Institute, part of the Brooking Institute, had developed its Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics in 1992, and I suggested to participants that those simple statements would make a solid basis for an ethics curriculum. Since then, I have discovered the very entertaining video Don't Copy That Floppy, created by the Software Publishers' Association. While the technology is a bit outdated, the message is still true: buy one copy, use one copy. It's perfect for middle school students who laugh at the silly song but can be heard humming it throughout the rest of the year.

My first copyright workshop was short, full of rules, and limited in focus. For the next presentation, I decided to address the variety of copyright issues teachers faced every day from copying print materials to publishing student work online to getting the performance rights for Annie Get Your Gun. To help determine what areas needed to be covered, I used a comprehensive online quiz.

Besides expanding the scope of the workshop, I also moved away from the rules approach I had first adopted. Anyone with Internet access can find numerous Web sites that clearly state the Fair Use guidelines. I recommend the University of Texas' Crash Course in Copyright because its "rules of thumb" help with copyright decision-making. I also recommend Public Broadcasting's TeacherSource because it delves more specifically into video use than do other sites. For my workshop, however, I felt it was more important to put the guidelines in action, giving specific examples of classroom copyright issues and interpreting actual copyright notices.

For example, I relate my efforts at determining the public domain status of a snippet of video about the Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster that could be found various places on the Web. We discuss public domain, and I highlight all the items that are available for use without permission. Most government materials, including raw data, reports, and even software, are not only allowed but, with the Internet, easily available. I also point teachers to the Project Gutenberg site, which has made it their business to get all public domain materials in electronic format. Finally, we stop at the Copyright Office to find out both how to register a copyright and search for information about copyright status.

I address specific questions that educators have asked over the years. Can you still show those old episodes of The Magic Schoolbus that you taped several years ago? (Answer: Most educational shows come with one-year taping rights. Some extend that to three years.) And how many pieces of clip art can you use on your Web site from the Discovery School gallery? (Answer: 10) What about access to videos of presidential speeches? (Answer: Everything the president does (post-Nixon) is in the public domain. But a video from ABC News of the president belongs to the network.)

We read the copyright notices at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art. The former has taken a liberal approach to sharing its images with the public, acknowledging the "spirit of the Internet." The latter, on the other hand, juggling the needs of its donors as well as its visitors, has a firm "no reproduction" policy. Yellowstone National Park has dealt with the numerous reproduction requests by putting a large selection of images into a public domain gallery that is available for all to use freely.

I also share stories that illustrate the frustration of copyright. For instance, as part of a unit on the play Julius Caesar, I liked to show a short section of The Cosby Show in which Theo and Cockroach perform a rap about the play. While the 10-day rule says I need to buy that tape, I found that trying to purchase one particular episode of the television series was almost impossible. The television stations that air the Cosby reruns do not own them. And while I could purchase videos of the show from a company online, I couldn't pick and choose but had to join a club and buy all the tapes.

Copyright is a constantly moving target. Distance learning provides its own challenges as publishing and distribution take on different meanings in the context of education. I recently delivered my copyright workshop as a videoconference and spent some time reviewing the newly emerging guidelines for this area. As news ways to deliver instruction emerge, copyright and fair use will continue to be discussed.

At the end of the workshop, we look at several Web sites that show how unevenly copyright is being implemented. Some sites didn't follow the rules and got in trouble for publishing material for which they did not hold the copyright. At one, a young woman with very good intentions had published a wide selection of Langston Hughes' poetry. The poet's estate requested its removal. Her injured tone on her Web page reflects the attitude of many on the Web: I'm not making any money from it so why should I have to get permission? The copyright holder is often seen as the enemy of the free exchange of information the Web represents. A visit to the American Academy of Poets Web site, however, shows copyright and the Internet working smoothly together. The visitor can read several of Langston Hughes' poems, each of which includes a clear permission notice.

This comparison exercise encourages educators to follow the copyright rules and fair use guidelines. I'm amazed at the number of teacher Web pages that include graphics for which no credit is given, even for legally used images. Almost all sites, even those with a liberal distribution policy, ask that credit be given either with the graphic or on a separate credits page. Yet, teachers who spend time every year teaching their students how to write correct bibliographies and emphasize the importance of attribution, ignore those same rules when it comes to their own publishing. We must set good examples for our students and for the Internet community at large. Ignoring copyright rules and fair use guidelines will only convince copyright holders that further restrictions are needed.

Helping educators learn more about copyright is the responsibility of every school district. My PowerPoint presentation serves as a guide to my own workshop and can be accessed on line. Schools are welcome to use it as part of their copyright education efforts.

"Copyright in the Classroom: A Workshop for Educators," Karen Work Richardson. Copyright © 2001 CMP Media, LLC. Reprinted by permission of (, 800-607-4410).

Submitted by Ursula Schwarz