Considering Copyright in the Classroom

In Hub Features on August 11, 2014 at 7:00 am

cc-by-nc-nd by Adam D. Zolkover

What you probably already know about copyright in the classroom is that there are some special rules, a little bit more permissive, that allow teachers and students to use protected intellectual property for the purposes of education.  As an instructor at a university, for example, I am permitted to show an excerpt from my favorite production of Hamlet if the purpose of the exhibition is to illustrate some point about the text, show it might be staged, or generate a discussion among my students that forwards the purposes of their education.  And likewise, my students are allowed to share excerpts of copyrighted materials in papers that they write for me, or in presentations that they give to the class.

The rules for doing this have been widely disseminated and are available, among other places, from here at the Indiana University library website.

If you haven’t read those rules carefully, however, what you may not know about using copyrighted material for educational purposes is just how restricted that usage remains.  If you plan to disseminate a copied text to all of your students or for your students to disseminate copies among themselves, the recommendation of the U.S. Copyright Office is that it be no more than:

  • One poem, or an excerpt of a poem, not longer than 250 words.
  • An article or book chapter not longer than 2,500 words — or for longer works, not longer than 1,000 words or 10% of the text (whichever is shorter).
  • One image or illustration from a book, journal, newspaper, or magazine.

That’s not a lot of material.  By that rule of thumb, I am in danger of violating copyright if I make copies of a featured article in The New Yorker and distribute them to my students to read for homework.  And I am a potential copyright violator if I pass around “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath (about 400 words) — or post it on my course’s Blackboard site.

And to make matters even more complicated, the rules — about the lengths of excerpts, what can be done with them, or whatever else — are not exactly rules at all.  The IU Library document tells us that language from the Copyright Office “is neither legal advice nor law, but contains some useful guidelines to making copies for educational purposes.”

This means that other uses may conceivably be permissible in the classroom, too, under the doctrine of fair use, or because a sensible person would see the pedagogical problem with presenting only half a poem or a third of a magazine article.  But it also means that, in this time of copyright contentiousness, I as an instructor might find myself in a situation that’s potentially even more restrictive.

There are clearly many times when we need to use copyrighted material in the classroom.  And for those times, one thing to bear in mind is that most university libraries have extensive electronic resources — from online text and image archives, to e-reserve systems, to services like Apple’s iTunes U — that are licensed for use by faculty and students.

Temple University, for example, offers streaming access to Shakespeare performances and ethnographic films, full-text academic articles, and archives of images from ArtStor.  The same is true at the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, and just about every other area school.  And if you’re faculty or a student at one of those places, it is safe to rely on those resources as long as you’re not disseminating them beyond the University gates.

But those resources do stop at the University gates.  They are not free, both in the sense that Universities pay for access and in the sense that they exist under restrictive licenses that limit what can be made of them and how far they can be shared.

Outside of that ecosystem, however, free resources are plentiful.  The Internet is filled with repositories of work that can be manipulated and distributed as users see fit, either because those works exist in the public domain or because they exist under an alternative license, like the ones developed by Creative Commons.  And if we’re using works like those, the question of rights — for instructors and for students — becomes much less fraught.

So what is the public domain?

That may sound sort of like a silly question, but the public domain is a term used fairly frequently, but rarely defined.

Works in the public domain are those whose copyright has expired or those that were ineligible for copyright to begin with.  These works may be authored, as the text of Hamlet, for example, is authored by William Shakespeare.  But they are not owned by the author or the author’s estate.  Rather, they are heritage — bits and pieces of culture that we all hold in common.

The details are more complicated, and a full rundown may be found here on the Wikipedia (itself an openly licensed resource).  But as a rule of thumb, works go into the public domain fifty, or sometimes seventy years, after the death of their author.  And after that time, they’re fair game to use, change, and redistribute as you see fit.

And Creative Commons? What’s that?

“Creative Commons,” in its own words, “is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools.”  It is run by a bunch of legally-minded do-gooders who offer a set of mix-and-match licensing options that allow the creators of a work — the author, the artist, etc. — to articulate which rights they want to reserve and what uses they want to permit.

All Creative Commons licenses require folks who use materials to provide attribution — to name the original author.  And all licenses allow materials to be shared in some form.  But beyond that, authors who use CC licenses may decide just how users can do that sharing:  whether they are allowed to make derivative works, whether materials can be used for commercial purposes, and whether folks who modify and / or redistribute the work have to do so under the same permissive license.

For example, an Attribution-NonCommercial license (CC BY-NC) allows works to by remixed, changed, and shared, so long as the original author is cited, and the product is not ultimately used for commercial ends.  Whereas a simple Attribution license (CC BY) allows others to do pretty much anything with the work, as long as they cite their source.

The only Creative Common license that works differently is CC0.  This license allows authors, in effect, to release their work out into the public domain.

Why is this important in the classroom?

Let’s be realistic here for a minute, folks.  The fact of the matter is that unless we act egregiously with copyrighted materials in the classroom, or unless one of our students is the child of a parent with a specific interest in restrictive intellectual property laws, the copyright police are unlikely to pay us a visit.

But the fact of the matter, too, is that by playing fast and loose with copyright — by allowing the overuse of images and music for which students have no permission, by allowing visual arts students to borrow and remix copyrighted material, or by flouting copyright restrictions ourselves — we’re not doing our students any favors, and we’re undermining the purpose of good pedagogy.

Consider for a moment why we cite.  The point of citation is partly to offer a context for whatever it is we are writing.  But it is also to give credit where credit is due and to acknowledge the ownership of the original author over his or her intellectual property.  The reason that plagiarism is anathema in academia is that academics (at least partly) trade on the ownership of their ideas, and taking those ideas without acknowledgement is (at least partly) taking bread out of academics’ mouths.

Copyright is the same deal.  We may or may not agree with the restrictiveness of copyright law, and we may or may not agree with the long copyright terms for corporate properties like Mickey Mouse.  But the logic of it is that for entities that trade on ideas, there needs to be some kind of protection for the ownership of those ideas and the right to use those ideas to make a buck.

By caring about copyright in the classroom, we are doing two things that greatly benefit our students.  First, we are teaching them a set of skills that will be vitally important in the workplace, especially, though not exclusively, if they go on to become creative professionals.  Taking visual arts students as an example:  we are teaching them to create work that they can sell down the line, or more specifically, that they can sell without having to pay another copyright holder and without the risk of being sued.

Second, by caring about copyright, we are making a statement about the need for a more nuanced system.  We are teaching our students that the reason to seek out works in the public domain is that those works allow them the freedom to build on other people’s ideas to make something new.  We are teaching them that the reason to support licensing schemes like the Creative Commons is that open dialogue and cooperation are at least as vital to rigorous academic inquiry and to entrepreneurial innovation as competition.

And in doing those things, we are protecting ourselves.  As I said, the chances that copyright violations in the classroom will be noticed, either by university hierarchy or by somebody outside, are kind of slim.  But for those of us who are contingent faculty — for whom continued employment from semester to semester depends on the good will of the university powers that be, and for whom, in a moment of crisis, higher-ed higher-ups may or may not go to bat — why take that chance?

After all — isn’t the livelihood of an adjunct precarious enough already?