Copyright Confusion is Shortchanging our Students

Hobbs, R.


When teachers at a suburban Philadelphia school district learned about the legal victory of the music industry over the single mother from Minnesota who was ordered to pay more than $220,000 for sharing 24 songs online, it only confirmed their suspicions. The changing legal environment surrounding digital media is affecting teachers and their students--- it’s intensifying the culture of fear.  “I’ve got a stash of videotapes with copyrighted excerpts of TV shows, movies, advertising, news and music videos that I use all the time in my teaching,” one teacher told me after learning about the court decision. “I wonder if they’re going to come after me some day.” 


It is ironic that, at a time when online digital technologies are enabling users to create and share an ever-widening array of multimedia texts, we are seeing an increase in the climate of fear among educators around the use of these new resources for teaching and learning.  Teachers’ fear of being harassed by media companies is stifling innovation, particularly in the use of digital media as tools for teaching and learning.


When we interviewed 63 educators from college and university professors to high school teachers and youth media professionals for the report, The Cost of Copyright Confusion for Media Literacy, we discovered that media literacy teachers are afraid to share their innovative practices with other educators, post materials online, or distribute samples of students' work. Because of teacher misinformation and fear, they deny students the ability to quote from creative expressions that are a central part of contemporary culture when creating classroom projects and assignments. As a result, students do not learn that copyright is designed to protect both the rights of owners and users in order to promote creativity and innovation. 


Misinformation and fear also limit teachers’ use of the Internet and digital technologies in their teaching.  Many teachers want to use You Tube as a teaching tool in the classroom but can’t because it’s blocked by school filters.  Some circumvent the blocks to screen videos but are not sure if this is legal; others warn their students not to post their video production assignments online.  As a result, the innovative instructional practices of media literacy – which combine critical analysis of media ‘texts’ with creative media production activities media literacy –  are not being widely shared.


Many teachers receive misinformation from a variety of gatekeepers, including colleagues, supervisors and media institutions. At some educational institutions, school policies are far more restrictive than the law mandates.


Teachers have tried to get their curriculum materials published, but found publishers unreceptive because media literacy lessons generally quote from films, TV shows, advertising, popular culture, and online media.  For example, when Cyndy Schiebe, a professor at Ithaca College, contacted Newsweek magazine, she was told that she needed a whole series of permissions (including one from Osama Bin Laden!) to use cover images of the magazine in a curriculum entitled Media Constructions of War. Instead of capitulating, she worked with college lawyers and realized that she could claim fair use, which does not require payment or permission. The curriculum materials are now freely available online. However, not all educators have school leaders who are as active in searching out their rights under fair use.


Fair use is the venerable copyright doctrine that permits reasonable quotation of copyrighted works without permission or payment when the benefit to society outweighs the harm to the copyright holder. It is a legal doctrine that is far more available to teachers than is currently understood or practiced. 


The creative consequences of this lack of knowledge are both immediate and long-term, according to Peter Jaszi, a co-investigator and legal scholar at American University's Washington College of Law. Teachers both limit their own analytical and creative efforts, and they also teach students a culture of fear around copyright.


But educators don’t have to live with a culture of copyright confusion.  They can stand up for their rights as users as other creative communities have done. When documentary filmmakers established what they thought was reasonable fair use, it made a big difference to documentary practice, without crimping the marketplace, according to Pat Aufderheide, a co-investigator and director of the Center for Social Media. That is the example that teachers can follow, now that the cost of their own copyright problems is clear.


With support from a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, media literacy educators are now beginning the process of discussing the development of a code of practices to articulate how fair use applies to our work.  Over the next year, we will be creating lesson plans and multimedia curriculum materials to help teachers introduce the concepts of copyright and fair use in the classroom. In doing this, educators can replace copyright confusion with copyright clarity.



The report is available online at:


Renee Hobbs is a professor of communication at Temple University where she founded the Media Education Lab. She is the author of Reading the Media: Media Literacy in High School English (Teachers College Press, 2007).