Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons

Mark Twain once said,

“Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.”

If you have ever done any reading on copyright laws and tried to sort out all of the rules and “fine print” in terms of what is legal and what constitutes copyright infringement, then you  know that navigating through the information and making sense of it all is no easy task.  Throughout my teaching career I have heard the term “fair use” bandied about by teachers when discussing matters that involved copyright.  The following excerpt comes from the U.S. Copyright Office webpage: 

The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.”

While this doesn’t clear the murky waters, it does send a powerful message.  When in doubt, get permission.  As a teacher, I am concerned about whether or not my students are getting a clear message about intellectual property and their ethical responsibility surrounding it.

From The New York Clipper - Public Domain

When I was in school, grade school through to college, it was pretty clear to me what I needed to do to avoid getting into trouble for plagiarism.  That was really the only concern I had regarding copyright.  In graduate school, I learned a lot from my research experiences.  I became quite skilled at paraphrasing the words of someone else in my note-taking, generating a well-written paper, and then citing the authors properly, APA style, in a bibliography.  For students today, it is a vastly different task.  Accessible media have exploded in terms of text, photos, videos, recordings, etc. that can be located and utilized.  End products of educational activities that have involved any form of research might often require more than a simple citation in a bibliography.  This is where the murkiness really sets in. 

Despite the complex web of copyright verbage, teachers have a responsibility to educate students about intellectual property.  I am always amused and a bit bewildered when I see student work posted somewhere with a citation attached that reads:  The student has tried to give credit where the credit was due and, at the very least, they understand the NEED to give the credit.  It’s important that students, at a very early age, understand this.  Still, is this enough?  One question that I always use with my students is:  “If you had taken a really great photo or written an awesome poem, would you want someone else to use that without giving you the credit?”   Intellectual property is owned, just as physical property is owned. 

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

     Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that enables the sharing of intellectual property on the web through free licenses.  All intellectual property comes with an automatic copyright and, under Creative Commons license, creative works “can be shared and re-used under terms that are flexible and legally sound.”  This is a brilliant way for owners of creative media to give permission for use.  In turn, it clears up some of the “murkiness” associated with copyright regulations. 

I posted this video in an earlier blog regarding the NMC Horizon Report and open content.  It gives a very concise and compelling introduction to Creative Commons.

No doubt, Mr. Twain nailed it.  I suspect that none of my students nor I will ever be faced with a lawsuit regarding copyright as it relates to an educational endeavor.   Nonetheless, it is our responsibility to inform students and guide them in making ethical decisions regarding the intellectual property of others.


Copyright Photo:

Creative Commons Logo:

U.S. Copyright Office Webpage:

Creative Commons Video:

Mark Twain Quote:


About Jamie

I am currently a middle school Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at The American School in Japan.
This entry was posted in COETAIL and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons

  1. Kim Cofino says:

    Oh my. as a source drives me crazy! I love asking students to check their peers sources, or self-check by clicking on all the URLs to see if they can find the content and watching their frustration as they can never find the same source again. Like you, I appreciate what they’re trying to do, but it’s hard to help them understand why it’s not an actual source until they go through the process of trying to use it as such. And, once you get past that stage, then they’re on to the search results from one page, or an image within the google search frame. It’s a process, that’s for sure! And it’s confusing for everyone, which doesn’t help.

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