Teachers lack of fair use education hinders learning & sets bad example

From Ars Technica

Heres how bad it is: not a single teacher interviewed for a recent study on copyright reported receiving any training on fair use.

Copyright confusion is running rampant in American schools, and not just among the students. The teachers dont know what the hell is going on, either, and media literacy is now being “compromised by unnecessary copyright restrictions and lack of understanding about copyright law.”

Thats the conclusion of a new report from the Center for Social Media at American University. Researchers wanted to know if confusion over using copyrighted material in the classroom was affecting teachers attempts to train students to be critical of media. The answer was an unequivocal “yes.”

One teacher, for example, has his students create mashups that mix pop music and news clips to comment on the world around them. Unfortunately for the students, the school “doesn””t show them on the school””s closed-circuit TV system” because “it might be a copyright violation.”

One big problem is that few teachers understand copyright law; they follow guidelines drawn up by school media departments or district lawyers, or they rely on books that attempt to lay down principles appropriate for an educational setting. As the report notes, though, this advice is generally of the most conservative kind, while long-established principles of fair use may afford far more rights—especially in a face-to-face educational setting.

Researchers found that teachers may not understand the law (or may understand it to be unduly restrictive), but that they deal with their confusion in three different ways. Teachers can “see no evil” by refusing to even educate themselves about copyright, on the thinking that it cant be wrong if they dont know its wrong. Others simply “close the door” and do whatever they want within the classroom, while a third group attempts to “hyper-comply” with the law (or what they perceive the law to be).

The results can be less-effective teaching tools. One teacher profiled in the survey wanted to promote literacy among kids who might not be enthused about it, and he thought that using lyrics from the Beatles and Kanye West might be a good way to do it. The license holders wanted $3,000. The reports authors claim that a robust understanding of fair use would give educators far more confidence about using such materials in the classroom.

Because teachers arent confident in the rules and have no training in fair use, many rely on rules of thumb with no real basis in the law. One teacher, for instance, told her students, “If you have to pay to use or see it, you shouldnt use it,” though uses of such works for commentary, criticism, and parody are explicitly established by US copyright law. The result is students that are even less-informed about copyright law.

Creating a new “code of practice” for educators could go some way toward fixing the situation, especially if such a code were blessed by major library and teachers associations.

But the basic issue is the fear of lawsuits that could cost a school district tens of thousands of dollars. Because the four fair use principles are intentionally left vague (so that they can cover a huge variety of situations), those in charge of local copyright guidelines tend to issue rules far more stringent than those obviously required by law. This new report hopes to show educators that by learning a bit more about copyright, they can have confidence in crafting a broad array of teaching tools and classroom assignments, even when those involve bits of copyrighted work.

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