Do the (Copy)right Thing


Educators' lack of attention to intellectual property law places their schools inlegal jeopardy-and sends a terrible message to students.

Do the (Copy)right Thing"HOW MANY do you want to know about?"

Having been prompted for an anecdote that demonstrates the lack of regard school districts have for complying with copyright law, Carol Simpson makes it clear that she has an abundant sample size to choose from. "I collect copyright horror stories," she says.

She collects and stores them in a database for all the K-12 world to view on her website.

A former school librarian and classroom teacher, now an associate professor at the University of North Texas School of Library and Information Sciences, and the author of a series of books on copyright issues, Simpson launches into a best-of review of K-12 copyright transgressions:

"I know of cases that range from multiple photocopying to computer software piracy-installing on many machines when you have a license for only one. I know a district where two pages were copied from a professional book and included in a district curriculum guide. The author found out about it and sued. The district settled out of court for $40,000. I know districts sued by Disney for using homemade copies of cartoon characters. A school district in Texas purchased a single copy of a high-stakes assessment workbook for each grade level, then sent the copies to the district print shop. The print shop duplicated a copy for each student in the district. The copyright owner found out, and sued the district, alleging $7 million in damages."

She says with resignation, "It's a long list."

Simpson is perhaps the most vocal among the too-few voices trying to engage administrators and classroom teachers to learn about, respect, and adhere to copyright law. To the great frustration of Simpson and other librarians, who tend to be the only copyright sticklers in K-12, it's no easy task, because of the many more pressing matters on the plates of school principals. Says Ruth Dukelow, associate director of the Michigan Library Consortium and author of The Library Copyright Guide (AECT, 1992), "Copyright is just not on the administration's radar."

Without a mandate from the district or a push from principals, teachers remain inattentive to and unschooled in copyright law as well, exposing their districts to litigation and modeling unlawful behavior for their students. "A lot of teachers don't have much background at all related to copyright," says Evelyn Wecker Freeman, information media consultant for Oakland Schools in Waterford, MI. "It's not something I learned at school either."

Some teachers, Freeman says, think that if published material, whether software, books, or music, is intended for educational purposes, they have free rein, while others believe that if something is freely available on the internet, nobody owns it. Both are false, potentially dangerous notions.


In 2002, the federal Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Actwas signed into law to address the use of copyrighted materials in the burgeoning area of distance learning. The bill extended the fair-use exemptions that are allowed in the classroom to be applied to distance learning as well, and explains what conditions schools must comply with.

"It seems that it is more a lack of awareness than avoidance that keeps [copyright] from being a priority," says Maria Kardick, librarian at Spring-Ford Eighth-Grade Center in Royersford, PA. "Educators feel no one will sue them because they work for a school and they are exempt."

It's that widespread assumption that copyright simply doesn't apply to education that can, and has, gotten districts into trouble. The "fair use" provision of the US Copyright Act does exempt schools from some copyright infringement restrictions, but sets conditions on what constitutes fair use. But often, the only instruction in copyright law teachers receive comes from a sign hung over the school's copy machine. Simpson marvels that in school-law class, which she says is generally taken by school administrators and covers the various statutes and case law related to education, copyright isn't even mentioned. The first time that principals become aware of copyright law, she says, may be from a cease-and-desist order. Simpson says she doesn't know any district in the state of Texas that hasn't been hit with copyright infringement-but the issues are settled out of court and there aren't public records of them or subsequent case law to study. She says she started keeping her database of K-12 copyright cases to refute the nonchalant administrators who would tell her, "Just show me one district that ever got sued!"

"Just about every district where I do workshops tells me of some situation in that district or a neighboring district," Simpson says. She recalls the story of one teacher who attended a workshop on teaching science where the presenter proposed a guiding principle called CASE: Copy and Steal Everything.

"Somewhere," she says, "the message has gotten muddled."

Learning the Law

The solution, plainly, starts with bringing educators up to speed on copyright law. Dukelow says a good first step would be the codifying of a schoolwide or districtwide copyright policy, which would help forestall lawsuits and instruct principals, teachers, and students alike in the concept of intellectual rights. She thinks educators would find it helpful to view an existing copyright policy (see Bytesize), and she also refers them to the American Library Association's Copyright Advisory Network, where educators can post and receive responses to their copyright questions.

"There's no shortage of education materials on the value of copyright and the risk of infringement," according to Keith Kupferschmid, senior vice president for intellectual properties at the Software & Information Industry Association ( The organization's website offers copyright information-in the form of both a primer and a guide, which include questions and answers, charts, and posters-for administrators, as well as links to a K-8 curriculum called CyberSmart!. The curriculum, created by The CyberSmart Education Company, addresses issues such as computer ethics, respecting the law, and cyber citizenship in a series of lesson plans and activity sheets.

But introducing educators to the law doesn't necessarily mean persuading them to stick to it if they think they're unlikely to be sued and too busy to bother complying. Says Simpson, "Many administrators convey the attitude, 'If we don't get caught, who cares?'" Kardick says that last spring she wanted to do a districtwide in-service for teachers and administrators, but found that "copyright instruction wasn't a real high priority." Neither the administrators nor the faculty thought that their lack of knowledge about the law was any kind of crisis.

Not true. The chances of transgressing copyright law are greater than ever, as new technologies provide more means of disseminating creative work, whether it's a football coach setting a compilation of game footage to a soundtrack of popular music and selling the DVD to parents, or a principal purchasing a software program and making multiple copies for teachers.


To view the copyright policy of Bellingham Public Schoolsin the state of Washington, go here.

One potential area of trouble for a school is its website, points out Nancy Willard, author and executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. "If a school has a public website upon which a student has posted material that infringes on the copyright of someone, the school could get into jeopardy," she says. Willard thinks schools need to take preemptory steps. One of her recommendations is that schools have a "Website Concerns" link so that concerns over material posted by staff or students can quickly and easily be resolved.

Student plagiarizing can also pose a danger to districts, says Simpson, since districts often post on their website the best examples of students' written work: "About two months later, the real author contacts them. So the reason the schools don't get caught is because the writer hasn't found them yet."

A Matter of Ethics

With administrators generally indifferent to their urgings, librarians are taking their case directly to the students, who may one day find themselves on the other end of copyright violations. "A lot of these kids are going to be making their livings with their imaginations, selling their intellectual property as writers, producers, programmers, artists, etc.," says Doug Johnson, director of media and technology at Minnesota's Mankato Area Public Schools. "Do [they] understand how to protect their own intellectual property?"

Kardick makes a point of teaching her students about copyright practices. She says they take notice when the discussion turns to being kicked out of college for distributing copies of downloaded music. "These things are a part of their lives now, or soon will be," she says.

Aside from the specter of lawsuits, teaching ethical behavior is also reason for educating kids on copyright law. In Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens, Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly (Jossey- Bass, 2007), Willard urges respect for the rights of creators, offering the example of downloading songs: "If you're going to enjoy someone's music, there is an ethical obligation to support that creator... You owe them-either money or the courtesy of asking for their permission."

"A lot of these kids are going to be making their livings withtheir imaginations... Do [they] understand how to protect their ownintellectual property?"
Doug Johnson, Mankato Area Public Schools

Simpson points out that it is not enough for educators to teach ethical behavior, but to demonstrate it as well, even if the chances of being nabbed for copyright infringement are low. "The fact that you may not get caught is not a sufficient reason to not obey the law," Simpson says. "It sends a very bad message to students: You only need to obey the laws that you think might get you into trouble."

Teaching copyright "can be incorporated into virtually everything students do," Simpson says, as a part of teaching appropriate documentation in written work. "Even young elementary students can be taught to attribute, and acknowledge that they are 'borrowing' information that was written by someone else."

Ultimately, says Simpson, copyright doesn't rate as priority with administrators because their focus is so squarely on state testing. "Copyright isn't on highstakes tests, and these days only what is tested on high-stakes tests gets taught," she says caustically. "There is immense pressure on administrators to maintain or raise test scores. If that means pirating test workbooks, then that's what they're going to do. They feel like the ends justify the means. They set a really bad example- students are watching. A teacher may say, 'If we right-click this and save it to our computer, we can use it anytime we want.' Excuse me, who did that belong to? It's not free! What kind of example are we setting for students when we tell them you can take anything you want and call it yours?"

Neal Starkman is a freelance writerbased in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.