Why teach copyright to students?

There are several reasons why it is important for students to develop a basic understanding of how copyright and limitations such as fair use work together to encourage creativity.

Copyright is becoming an essential element of digital literacy – because everyone is a publisher now.  Students today grow up with powerful technologies at their fingertips from very early ages.  These technologies enable them to access, share, copy, generate, and collaborate on creative work in ways that are new and constantly evolving.  Put simply, kids today may be large-scale consumers of online media, but they are also creators, publishers, distributors, and critics.  It used to be common for students to hang their work on the family refrigerator.  Today, they do much, much more.  From photos to homemade videos to school projects to their favorite entertainment, they post online and amass viewers and followers. It’s an environment rich with possibilities, but it also creates an immediate, practical need: Students have to know how to interact with creative work in ways that are both ethical and legal.  Understanding the basic ground rules around creative work is an essential element of being a successful and engaged digital citizen, alongside issues such as online privacy, security, and cyber bullying.

That’s where copyright comes in.  Whether they know it or not, copyright and fair use are directly relevant to online activities that kids engage in virtually every day. At school, students are using, creating, and sharing copyrighted works when they study everything from art and music to English and history. They produce videos or multimedia presentations in connection with project-based learning, and they learn computer skills from video editing to software coding. At home, they use the new tools technology provides to both find and create blogs, music, art, and videos, and engage on social networks to share it all with a potentially vast audience. But when is it ok to reuse or share some or all of someone else’s work? How should they expect others to treat their work? To be ethical and legal participants in their online communities, students need to be familiar with the basic concepts of copyright and fair use.

Standards groups say kids need to learn about copyright.  The importance of educating students about copyright has been recognized by leading education standards organizations.  These organizations view copyright education as part of learning to think critically about how to select, evaluate, and use information in a digital world.

  • International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), Standards for Students
    • As part of being a digital citizen, students should “demonstrate an understanding of and respect for the rights and obligations of using and sharing intellectual property,” including “abiding by copyright and fair use, citing resources, gaining or giving permission to use (content), avoiding plagiarism, understanding and using creative commons.”
  • American Association of School Librarians (AASL), Standards for the 21st Century Learner
    • 21st century students should learn to “respect copyright/intellectual property rights of creators and producers.”
  • California Model School Library Standards
    • In grade 3, students should “demonstrate a basic understanding of intellectual property rights and the difference between sharing and ownership.”
    • In grade 5, students should “demonstrate an understanding of and show respect for personal intellectual property.”
    • In grade 6, students should “understand how to provide limited copyright and authorize use of original works (e.g., Creative Commons).”
    • In grades 7-8, students should be able to “explain ethical and legal issues relating to the use of intellectual property including print, visual, audio, and online materials (e.g., fair use, file sharing).”
    • In grades 9-12, students should “demonstrate respect for intellectual property, copyright restrictions, fair use, and public performance rights when downloading or duplicating media.”
  • Massachusetts School Library Association, Recommended Standards for PreK – Grade 12 Information Literacy Skills
    • By the end of eighth grade, students should “with assistance begin to demonstrate understanding of copyright law, e.g., fair use and intellectual property rights.”
    • By the end of twelfth grade, students should “demonstrate understanding of copyright law” and “voluntarily apply legal principles and ethical conduct related to information technology such as copyright, plagiarism, privacy, online etiquette, acceptable use of resources.”

Copyright is important to the future of creativity and the Internet.  Beyond the students’ immediate needs, the future of both creativity and the Internet will be affected by how citizens choose to interact with creative work.  We all want to encourage great new books, music, games, movies, and art for everyone to enjoy.  We want our work respected when we make creations of our own.  And we want all this creativity to spur yet more, with artists and creators building on creative work that has come before. To keep creativity flowing in a world where publishing and copying are so easy, we look to copyright and fair use.

More broadly, to keep the Internet functioning in a free and open manner, it is important for citizens to choose to live ethically in their digital environments.  Online ethics are crucial, in copyright as in other areas, because we all have an interest in promoting digital spaces where people understand the civic boundaries and choose to play fair.