Thursday, March 25, 2010

Copyright in the Classroom

For my class presentation, I discussed the potential for copyright infringement educators and students face when simply pulling images off the web for PowerPoints, activities, and assignments. It's easy to use Google Images as a resource, but it may not always be legal. Copyright means that a person (or a company or school) owns the rights to their created work (a song, image, blog post, video, curriculum, etc). All rights to use or distribute the creation are reserved by the copyright holder.

Does this mean that every time you want to use an image you should get your lawyer on the phone? Not exactly - there is some breathing room under the label of fair use. Here are the terms surrounding fair use, found in Section 107 of the US copyright law:

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include —

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a
commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the
copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the
copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors (

Everybody clear on that? No? Me neither. As with all laws, there are various interpretations of fair use. Does number 3 mean that you can only show part of a TV episode in class, or are you allowed to play the entire show? Could you let your students rewrite the lyrics to a popular song to perform in class, using the original instrumental as background music? Can you include that image you found online in your PowerPoint or should you email the photographer first?

How do you know? What are your options as an educator? What can you do? Should you call or email the owner of the copyright (or their lawyers) and ask for permission? Just use the content and hope that no one takes issue with a possible copyright violation?

What am I doing in my classes? I'm getting creative with the help of artists, educators, and others from all around the world by using their works. Content that they actually want me to use. This system of sharing is known as Creative Commons. Want to know more? Check out this video...

Let's take that video, for example. How did I know I could post it here? I found it here and thought it would be perfect for this post (honestly, I kinda built my post and class presentation around it). After clicking on the link, you will see this symbol underneath the media player.

This is the owner's Creative Commons License. This particular license tells you that you are free to copy, share, distribute, and remix (adapt) the material - as long as you aren't using it commercially and you attribute it to the creator. This video was posted to by the Creative Commons organization. There. I just upheld my part of the bargain. I attributed the content to the owners and am not selling it. I could have put my own vocal track behind it, or edited it to only play a specific part. I can show it in class or broadcast it on another file sharing site. That is what their license allows. How do you know what their license allows? Click on the image beneath the media player on the page and you will see all the details (it is too large of a graphic to embed here - sorry!).

This is only one type of Creative Commons license - some allow for commercial use. Others do not allow remixing or adaptation. How do you know what license is used? You can find a quick and easy guide here.

How can you begin using Creative Commons (I'm going to use the CC abbreviation from here on out) content in your classrooms today? It's easy - not quite as easy as jacking items from a Google Image search - but who wants to use the same pics as everyone else anyway? One of the first places to look is the photo and video sharing site flickr (you may need to create an account to access all content - particularly if you are looking for sexuality materials). Not everyone on flickr uses a CC license, but many folks do. The easiest way to find CC content is to use their advanced search feature. Type in the search terms - I used "transgender youth" - and scroll to the very bottom of the page. Then be sure to click the box that searches only CC licensed photos and videos. Click search and...

Awesome. That photo was taken by flickr user "[insert stereotypical label here]" and can be found here. Their CC license says that I can use it, but not remix or adapt it, and that I can't use it for commercial purposes. All I need to do is attribute the picture to the photographer, which I just did. It's that simple.

Another site with fewer choices, but really interesting images, is fotopedia. I searched for "sexuality" and came up with this CC licensed gem...

It was actually taken from a flickr account as well and posted on the fotopedia site. The photographer's user id is "derpunk", and their CC license says I can use it for non-commercial purposes, and adapt it as well. This license also has one additional restriction, known as "share-alike." If I did alter the image (can anyone think of funny thought bubbles we could photoshop on the happy couple?), I have to license the work in the same way as the original. Meaning simply, I can't make the terms of use for my derivative work more or less restrictive than the original picture's.

Wikimedia Commons is another great place to find CC licensed (and public domain) images. I searched for "sex", clicked on a couple of the tags, and came across this image (again from a flickr
user) taken by "Noodle." The license for this image is the same as the one described for the turtles that are slowly...getting...busy.

Another site worth checking out is the Brooklyn Museum, which has thousands of images of artwork online, many of which are CC licensed (just don't forget to check the CC box in the advanced search options). This image has no known copyright restrictions, and the museum provides a bio of the artist, Lilly Martin, who supported her husband and family by painting pictures of women in traditional gender roles.

Brooklyn Museum: Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'Lasses

These are just a few of the amazing images you can find with just a little effort. Once you start looking at the gorgeous and thought provoking photos, you may never want to go back to Google Images. And after learning about copyright and Creative Commons, you may decide to share some of your own creations - images, videos, lessons, or activities under a CC license. Utilizing and contributing to the CC community will help to raise awareness of of the movement, and that will ultimately mean more content that you can be sure is is free, simple, and easy to use.

Ryan McKee

*As with any info on copyright you will find on the web, this post is not meant to be taken as legal advice. It is intended only to get you thinking about the way you use resources in the classroom, the rights of the creators, and the vibrant CC community that is emerging around art and education.


  1. Wow, Ryan! That was a very detailed blog! I kept coming up with questions along the way, which you ended up answering. Thank you! I'm so used to hearing about music legal cases dealing with copyright infringement. That I can understand. But it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that an educator could get in trouble for using a video, photo, song, etc. as a learning tool. Perhaps, instead of going through all of the trouble of having every item “CC”ed, it would just be easier to change the law and allow everything to be used for educational purposes? I’m tired of this ambiguity!

  2. Thanks! There are fair use exceptions, so don't feel completely boxed in a corner legally. But I think its a lot of fun discovering these (largely undiscovered) resources and contributing to the community by providing our own, or simply tagging images you like with a relevant tag, such as "sexuality" so others can find them. The CC movement is all about making the process easier - it just takes a little while to get the hang of checking out the licenses and learning what they mean. As far as changing the laws...copyrighted items can be used for educational purposes (and parody), its just a matter of how, how much, and how often. PBS, for example, has a brief description of fair use on their website here and an extended faq detailing what you can and can't do with their materials here

  3. I agree with Kelly - how in-depth! It is also important to remember that we are producing work that can be infringed upon. As we create papers, curriculum, and dissertations,I believe we often forget how much effort and pride we put into our works, and it is our job to protect these works as our own. The following link is the governmental perspective of copywriting rights:


  4. The blog was extremely interesting and informative. So many questions were answered. All this information brings many more questions into play. I agree with Kelly in that you were so detail-oriented in your blog Ryan. Alicia also puts a new spin on the topic by stressing the importance of protecting our own work.

    Below is a quick reference chart for copyright and fair use guidelines for educators in the classroom.

    The APA manual is also a handy tool for appropriate citations.


  5. As someone who writes for publication as well as for online content, I am constantly questioning whether I should have some kind of message on my posts regarding the intellectual property contained therein. I've heard a few opinions on this. A lot of people post this message at the beginning of their online profiles/their personal sites:

    "WARNING: Institutions and/or individuals using this site or its associated sites for projects or personal - You do NOT have permission from Me to use any of My profile or pictures in any form or forum both current and future. If you have or do, it will be considered a violation of My privacy and will be subject to legal action."

    The only problem is, as Ryan rightly points out, while they might actually not have explicit consent to use your thoughts/images/etc., the website itself (in the example I'm using, an online BDSM forum) owns your text/images/etc. and you don't really have a whole lot of jurisdiction over them.

    Other people have pointed out to me the whole "all press is good press" notion, stating that if someone were to repost your blog entry somewhere else, it would be useful for driving content to your blog/website/etc.

    A note to professionalism, though, Ryan makes a great point that we as educators can raise our standards of what we will use and how we will use it, thus setting a professional standard for others to follow. Great, great, great information for the responsible educator.

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone! Sarah raises an interesting point - It is one thing to post something online for people to "see." As in hey look at this awesome photo I took. It is another thing to post something online for people to "use." As in hey look at this awesome photo I took (and you can totally take it and use it in your blog or in the slideshow you are making or put funny icanhascheesburger text around it and repost it).

    If you want people to only "see" your work, you should reserve your rights with a copyright (in fact, they are already reserved). If you want to share, you can get a CC license and alert people to what exactly you are comfortable with people doing to it once they take it. You can post a legal-esque disclaimer like the one Sarah described, or just alert people to the CC license you have acquired (which is super easy - Now, getting people to adhere to the terms of your license may be difficult - but then again we are all probably guilty of not adhering to copyright terms for images we have used in the past. Even if our usage is covered under fair use, the laws are ambiguous and if someone wanted to be a pain in our necks over infringement, they could be. What I like about the CC movement is that it's a fresh take, a new way of thinking. And most importantly - the resources are INCREDIBLE (and they inspire me to want to contribute through tagging photos/videos or even taking my own and sharing them).

  7. Is anyone else not seeing all the pics today? Or is that just on my end?

  8. Ryan, what an excellent blog! All of the work you produce always makes me think. And, this is a topic I never thought of before you presented about it in class. In this world of academia, we are all very concerned with the legalities of plagiarism in the hundreds of papers we write, and how to avoid it at all costs. There's even a manual that tells us exactly how to cite any work we might have borrowed from, paraphrased, or downright took right out of the hard copy. But, have we ever really had a class discuss the copyright protection laws regarding the items we use when we are in the classroom? I know I haven't. And I think it is a really important topic, now that it has been brought to my attention. I think Creative Commons is a fantastic tool for us educators to use. Not only to help with our education, but to also help with other's educations. I want what I've created to be used by others, and I want them to know that they can take it and do with it what they will, as long as they follow whatever guidelines I set in place. I really enjoyed learning about CC and how it's used. I think it would be quite beneficial to our student population if this information was shared in one of our classes. While we in 646 were lucky enough to learn about it, not everyone in our program will...but maybe they could. It would make for a good guest speaker spot!

  9. Thanks Allison - Stay tuned for my practicum this fall (hopefully) to learn all you can about Creative Commons and open education. I'm trying to prepare a curriculum that addresses these issues and more for our program, in the hopes of having everyone collaborate and create CC licensed materials to share with the world.

  10. What an interesting point you raised, about the difference between allowing others to simply “see” content, or allowing them to actually “use” it. I think copyright is usually framed simply as an issue of ownership, and as a content creator, it concerns me to think about the possibility that someone else might claim ownership over content I have created. But to think about the breakdown of “seeing” vs. “using” that content helps me to think about the possibilities that CC licensing affords.

    For instance, I took all my own pictures for my Powerpoint presentation on condoms (to avoid copyright issues!), and I never would have thought about sharing those pictures to allow other educators to use them for their own presentations. Now, however, I think I will share those pictures with a CC license, so that other educators can incorporate such images without issue. I love the idea of sharing intellectual property for others’ benefit!

    On the other hand, it does concern me to think about who would enforce CC licenses to ensure that users are adhering to the stipulations laid out in each license. Then again, who can really constantly enforce copyright law? I guess if people are going to steal content, they’re going to do it anyway. It makes me think of the old saying, “Locks are for honest people.” Might as well share using a CC license so that those who could benefit from shared content, will be able to do so. Great food for thought! :-)

  11. Copyright

    I really enjoyed your blog. Copyright is something that is often misused by individuals and some professionals unintentionally. When reading your blog and listening to your presentation I searched for more resources to assist professionals when trying to use a new idea or share knowledge. I found your resources and blog extremely helpful along with these: