Saturday, November 19, 2011

Making Fair Use Fun

Classroom lessons about "copyright" and "fair use" usually rank up there on the fun meter right next to “algebraic equations” and “dangling participles.” Even saying the words “fair use,” especially in front of class full of 7th graders, is sure to make their eyes glaze over.  

However, what I learned teaching this lesson (using Common Sense Media’s Digital Literacy and Citizenship curriculum) can be best summed up as a mathematical equation:  

Relevant + Relatable = Fun

Here’s the relevant part. For most of us, it’s difficult to get a real sense of appreciation for copyright law is until we've created a piece of work we feel is worthy of protection. In other words, it helps to have a little skin in the game. To create this relevancy the class was told that the Happy Birthday song they’ve been singing for years is actually protected by copyright law (yes, it’s true, so if you plan to perform the song in public or include it in a movie, get out your checkbook). So, following the curricular advice of the Common Sense Media unit Respecting Creative Work, the class broke into small groups and created original birthday songs for their teacher.  Here are snippets they shot of their creations.
This lesson became relatable when the students discussed how they would feel if someone sang their song and, a) did not give them credit for it or, b) claimed them as their own. They didn’t like either of these two possible scenarios and were eager for copyright protection of their creative work.

However, when the tables were turned and they were asked to create “mashup" posters using copyrighted materials in a manner that would be considered “fair use” (i.e., using a limited amount, adding new meaning/making it original, reworking/using in a different way), they were eager for the opportunity to dig in and reassemble, reuse, repurpose and rework the work of others. However before attacking the stack of magazines with their scissors, I did notice a moment of pause as many wondered how to credit the authors of the works within the pages. In fact, many of them scanned the pages searching for names to credit (even though this is not always necessary in under the parameters of fair use, it is still good manners to give credit when you can).  

In a world where cut, copy and paste have become almost automatic reflexes, all of this is confusing, murky, grey area stuff. Even as a filmmaker, I found I had to refresh myself on the current state of copyright, public domain and fair use as they apply to all the information (seemingly) freely available on the Internet before I could begin to speak about these things with the students.  In fact I’m still feeling badly about the image at the top of this blog that I found used on multiple other blogs, none of which included an attribution (if anyone knows the creator, contact me!). Luckily I found a world of help in a just published chapter (Toward a Pedagogy of Fair Use for Multimedia Composition) in a new book by Renee Hobbs and Katie Donnelly titled Copy(write): Intellectual Property in the Writing Classroom.

As Hobbs and Donnelly tell us, “the rise of digital media has contributed to greater levels of awareness and sensitivity because ‘the practice of making one’s own music, movie or essay makes one a more self-conscious user of the cultural artifacts of others,’ as media literacy education is part of a broad practice of learning by doing that ‘makes the entire society more effective readers and writers of their own culture’" (Benkler, p. 299, as cited in Hobbs & Donnelly, 2011, pp. 279-280).

I agree with that statement wholeheartedly. In fact, it got me wondering about members of Congress who, ironically, on the same day as we were experiencing this lesson, were debating the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a new bill intended to ban allegedly copyright-infringing websites from the Internet. Critics of the legislation say it would strike at the very core of the sharing, openness, and participation that the Internet represents. In fact, many feel this bill could usher in an era of Internet censorship that will make the critical thinking skills like those practiced in this class a pointless waste of time and these students might as well have been filling in bubbles on some mandated state test. I honestly wish at least some members of Congress had gotten to make their own birthday songs and “mashup” posters when they were in school. At least then I’d feel a whole lot better about their abilities to cast an informed vote on this bill. But I digress…

If these students hadn’t had the experience of creating, documenting and feeling proud of their musical numbers, I don’t think they would have tried so hard, as they did, to find the names of those who created the works used in their “mashup” posters. At the very least I believe they learned a valuable lesson that day… that that the old adage, “what goes around, comes around” carries more meaning now, than ever before. 

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