Tips on Talking Fair Use in The Classroom

December 07, 2012
Kelsey Herron

Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Common Sense Resources, Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, In the Classroom

Fair use is a tricky topic for anyone to tackle, but it can be a particularly difficult concept for youth to grasp –and even more difficult to teach. The ever-changing laws are made even more complicated in a time when tumblr, mash-ups, and #regrams pervade teen’s digital technology palette, making the line between fair use and copyright infringement cloudy at best.

One student from West Side Collaborative Middle School in New York City, who had been making remixes using copyrighted material, said recently, “I actually had no idea it was against the law!” She wasn’t the only alone, either. Many of her peers were surprised at the kinds of content covered by fair use. She was tipped off to the fact by our curriculum unit, “Rework, Reuse, Remix.”

Her class was featured in a Teaching Channel video earlier this year. Common Sense Media has partnered with the Teaching Channel to help educators implement our curriculum into their own classrooms.

“We go deep into understanding fair use and understanding when it can be used and under what lenses,” said West Side Collaborative teacher Novella Bailey in the video. “Once the kids have these basic understandings of fair use and when it can be applied and how it can be applied, then they really get to be the decision makers.”

Bailey showed her class a few clips containing copyrighted material that bordered on being fair use. She had students gather in groups to take notes and discuss their opinions, and use their findings as concrete evidence to support their arguments. Surprisingly, she found the lesson not only taught her students about fair use, but taught her about her students as well:

They were just so into it, and it really opened up for me – as a teacher – how connected my students are to digital media and how powerful it can be to get them inspired, to get them thinking, to get them to begin to collect evidence. It’s just a great tool, and I feel like I tapped into an element of their lives you don’t necessarily tap into every day.

The lesson focuses on four key classroom takeaways:

-        Have students use “I agree” or “I disagree” statements

-        Require students to defend their choices

-        Point out skills students are learning

-        Review vocabulary at the end of the lesson

In addition to fair use, it’s important to let students know about other, legal options when looking for songs to remix, fellow collaborators, or maybe a platform to share their own work. Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization, has designed a copyright option for the digital age that enables users to share their creations more readily and without fear of reprisal.

The organization provides easy-to-use tools for copyright licensing, while allowing users to stipulate the conditions of their choice. As their website explains, “CC licenses let you easily change your copyright terms from the default of “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.” Thousands of users have labeled their work under a Creative Commons license, essentially creating a pool of shareable, remixable work.

It has been incredible to watch organizations adapt and change to offer more inclusive options when it comes to collaboration and sharing creative output. For instance, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard created Open Access, a free online catalogue of scholarly articles penned by writers interested in sharing their body of work. At the same time, in other parts of the country, academic experts are working together to write free, open-sourced textbooks, adding momentum to the open textbook movement. All of their work will enable more students to have access to textbooks while allowing authors themselves to determine what level of sharing they want to allow.

The laws that dictate whether a work is copyrighted, or protected under fair use or Creative Commons can create a difficult landscape to navigate. The key is, as always, to provide students with the resources and information they need to, as Novella Bailey put it, be their own “decision-makers.”

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