learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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Learning.now is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn. It will offer a continuing look at how new technology such as wikis, blogs, vlogs, RSS, podcasts, social networking sites, and the always-on culture of the Internet are impacting teacher and students' lives both inside and out of the classroom.
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Encouraging Student Creativity with Creative Commons

I’m often amazed by the lack of discussion in education technology circles about copyright. Sure, people talk about it occasionally, but given the increasing number of young people (read: millions of them) uploading their own content to the Internet, it surprises me how many educators don’t make a point at teaching copyright basics to students. That’s why I thought it would be worth spending a little time talking about the issue and an amazing online initiative that every Internet-using educator should know about: Creative Commons.

The idea behind copyright is simple: if you create an original work, such as book, a song or a film, you should be able to profit from it without being exploited by others. This has always been very important to individual artists who make a living off their work - if others could rip off your content without compensating you, you might not be able to make a living as an artist.

In today’s world, copyright has become a lot more complicated. Ever since the advent of digital recording and the ability to upload large files to the Internet, everyone with Internet access could theoretically become distributors of other people’s content, even without their permission. Think about those news stories last year when the music recording industry started suing teenagers for distributing commercial MP3 files online. The reason why stuff like this didn’t happen previously was because the average kid growing up in the 70s or 80s didn’t have the tools to make high-quality reproductions of commercial music and share them with millions of people. I certainly made my share of mix tapes back in the day, but even if the recording industry knew about them, they wouldn’t have wasted their time. The reproduction quality was poor and my audience was rarely ever larger than one or two people at a time. Simply put, digital recording tools and the Internet changed everything.

But the copyright wars aren’t just limited to combating teens that swap mp3 files online. With more and more kids remixing other people’s audio and video into their own original content, these young people are exposing themselves to certain legal risks. For example, last week I blogged about a really amazing student-produced video about social injustices around the world. It was a great example of youth media, except for one thing - they used a song by the band Coldplay as their soundtrack. If this were just a school project seen only within the confines of the classroom walls, it really wouldn’t be an issue. But the Internet allowed these students to share their work with a worldwide audience. Gone are the days when teachers, students and parents are the only viewers of a classroom media project. With the creation of YouTube.com and video blogging, that same project can be seen by hundreds of thousands of viewers.

And that bothers many commercial content publishers, because many of them generate a significant part of their income by licensing clips of their work to people who need it. Take the song “Happy Birthday to You” - yes, the song everyone sings at birthday parties. Arguably the best known song in the English language, it’s also a registered copyright work until the year 2030. That means every time the song appears in a movie or other commercial work, the owners of the song expect to get paid for it. Next time you see a movie that includes the song, watch the credits and you’ll find an acknowledgment to the song’s publisher.

It’s tempting to think that student media projects like the social injustice video would simply fall under “fair use,” but many commercial copyright holders don’t see it that way. That’s why even nonprofit documentary makers struggle to get their works finished when they incorporate other people’s creative work, intentionally or not. The award winning PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize was out of circulation for years because they couldn’t afford to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing fees for songs relevant to the civil rights era that were featured in the film.

So what’s an educator to do? Young people need to learn that incorporating other people’s original work is fine for personal use, but the moment they put content online, it’s a whole new ballgame. And since I’m not aware of any school having a line item in their budget for students to license commercial music and video clips, they need to find other sources of content that won’t cost them any money. That’s where Creative Commons enters the pictures.

Creative Commons (CC) is an online copyright initiative led by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig. Lessig and his colleagues realized that the Internet could be an amazing tool for sharing original content, but content producers only had two options for sharing their work. One option was to declare their work “public domain,” allowing anyone in the world to use it - and profit off of it. The other option was to declare it “All Rights Reserved” - which is a simple way of saying, “If anyone wants to use this content for any reason whatsoever, you need to negotiate with me first.” Neither of these options was ideal for millions of people who simply wanted to have their original content used by others without getting exploited in the process.

So the Creative Commons team created a collection of simple, straightforward licenses that could be applied to any type of content, spelling out exactly how you would want the content to be used. For example, check out my personal blog and you’ll see a little Creative Commons button near the bottom of the right column. This button links to what’s called a Noncommercial-Attribution-ShareAlike license. The license declares that anyone can feel free to use the content posted on my blog, including editing it, disseminating it and incorporating it into their own creative works, as long as they follow three basic tenets:
  • Their use is noncommercial in nature;
  • They attribute me as the source;
  • They pass along the exact same copyright license to the next generation of users.

Because of this license, people from all over the world are able to utilize my content for whatever purposes they want, as long as it follows these basic rules. For example, a museum in Georgia recently used one of my videos for an exhibit they were curating on West African textiles. They were nice enough to contact me about it, but they didn’t have to - the CC license laid out my expectations, and they could use the video immediately as long as those expectations were followed. Almost every week I get an email from an educator asking to use some piece of media I’ve published, and I always tell them, “No need to ask,” pointing them to my CC license. You can almost see the lightbulbs going off in their heads when they figure out how the license works.

Granted, I’m just one guy who’s nice enough to share his original work with the public, and one guy can’t make a difference, right? Thankfully, this isn’t the case, because millions of people have started to use Creative Commons to publish their own content. Take a look at the website Flickr.com, perhaps the most popular photo sharing tool on the Internet. They’ve incorporated CC licenses into the website, so anyone who sets up a photo album there can choose a license that best suits their needs. You’re not required to use a CC license, but the option is there - and people are embracing the idea. The number of photos published under a CC license there is staggering. For example, there are more than five million photos that have been published under the Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license. Another 1.8 million photos simply require attribution by the user, while nearly 2.5 million more photos are available with an Attribution-Noncommercial license - in other words, they don’t require the person using them to apply the same license when they re-use the photos. That’s nearly 10 million photos that you and your students can start using right now, no questions asked. Just follow the tenets of whichever Creative Commons license they used, and you’re good to go.

Looking for music rather than photos? Go no further than Magnatune Records. They have an enormous catalog of music from around the world, all licensed using Creative Commons. Your students can incorporate their music into their videos, podcasts or any other project that requires music. As long as you follow their CC license, you can even post the results of their work online. Individual musicians are getting into the act as well - bands like Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys have released select tracks using Creative Commons licenses. David Byrne and Brian Eno even set up a website where people could download the original source files of one of their songs so people could remix it to their heart’s content.

All sorts of content can now be found with Creative Commons licenses. And because the licenses get embedded into the websites that host this content, it’s easy to find using tools like the Creative Commons search engine. Just tell the search engine what you’re looking for and how you plan to use the content, and it’ll generate a list of content sources relevant to your needs. Yahoo also has a Creative Commons Search page for conducting similar media scavenger hunts for student projects.

From my perspective, the Internet wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for Creative Commons. Millions of Internet users were given the confidence to publish their own original work while encouraging others to build upon it. This has contributed directly to the flourishing of Web 2.0 culture, as more people than ever are sharing their videos, photos and other content online. Thanks to Creative Commons, educators have an amazing collection of media that can be incorporated into their students’ projects. Who knew? -andy

Bonus material: For those of you who want to teach your students about copyright as part of a lesson plan, be sure to download a copy of Bound By Law?, an extraordinary comic book created to explain the intricacies of copyright and articulate the rights of content producers who wish to incorporate other peoples’ work. It’s an amazing comic book, written by experts at Duke law school - and it’s available on a Creative Commons license. :-)

Filed under : Cool Tools, Video, Youth Media


Good overview, Andy. One historical note: the music industry most certainly did care about home taping on cassettes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_taping_is_killing_music

Thanks, Tom - and good point. But I don’t recall them trying to sue individual tape mixers, kinda like when they went after VCRs. They tried to sue Betamax out of existence (and failed), but didn’t go after owners of VCR equipment on a grand scale in the same way they’ve gone after mp3 swappers.

Thanks for the amazing content-rich post! We (Global Learning) are augmenting our CLASS Curriculum for use in schools. CLASS integrates five literacy-related areas (media literacy, research skills, library skills, technology, and literacy) and emphasizes project-based learning to help students (and teachers) investigate how new technologies are changing the educational landscape. The copyright issue is, of course, a major one in the student production of media. It also plays a big part in the student analyses of media because it is difficult to find copyright free resource banks of “mass media” commerical content that can be used for educational purposes and does not have “unprotected” qualities (e.g., nearby stuff you do not want students in K-6 to encounter.) For example, I can direct students/teachers to view a commercial on YOUTUBE but we run the risk of a “clickfest.” Any ideas on how to provide a common set of current media content (e.g. tv ads) without running afoul of copyright and without having students swimming alone in the vast uncharted waters of the WWW?

YouTube is a bad idea because it’s like the myspace of video sites - if you’re looking for a thousand videos of people passing gas, it’s the one for you. But if you’re looking for educational content, you should probably go elsewhere. Blip.tv has lots of creative commons videos, and a teacher could download videos ahead of time so there isn’t a clickfest issue, but most of blip.tv content is more personal in nature rather than educational. If you’re looking for so-called “commercial” edudcational video, you’re probably going to have to pay for it. -andy

“Iím often amazed by the lack of discussion in education technology circles about copyright.”

You shouldn’t be! It’s easy to understand; many copyright rules are so restrictive and frustrating and ridiculous or time consuming to deal with ethically that teachers just get worn down.
As a teacher-librarian I see a lot. Eg. A first year teacher brings their class into the lab, teaches them to use Flash, and they create some really exciting book trailers; which are then used to entice other students into reading the books. Do I really want to be the person to point out to that teacher that the 15 second sound bit of the latest hit tune can’t be used? Not really. It is so hard to get kids enthused that when they are finally in the flow…you don’t want to be the wet blanket.
I heard recently, but don’t know if it is true that scanning a passage from a book, saving it on the computer (so it could be used with more than one class), and then projecting it on an LCD projector so that kids could read along is a violation of copyright because I’ve digitally stored the material. We know that students learn better if you can deliver the material in more than one mode; if they hear it AND see it for example. But I’m stymied by a law that says I shouldn’t save the material on the computer. It’s too time consuming to scan it before every class. I’ve purchased the book - I just haven’t purchased one for every student and never would…
Sometimes I just feel too worn down to discuss issues like this. I’m only trying to make education more relevant and exciting and effective… I’m not trying to rip anybody off or make an extra dollar myself!
I really appreciate learning about the Creative Commons site and intend to check it out and introduce it to the rest of my staff. Thanks,
Janice Robertson

Hi Janice,

Interesting question about scanning text from a book. Honestly, I don’t know the answer, but I do know a possible way around it. Amazon.com offers a “look inside the book” feature where you can search for text and see it in the original context of the book, including the full text of the passages. They limit the number of pages per day you can view from a given book, but it might allow you to pull up key passages and project them without having to worry about all of that scanning, not to mention copyright confusion.

Anyway, it’s just an idea. -andy

Copyright in education is a big topic of discussion in the world of special education and assistive technology, where we are dealing with the need to convert traditional text materials into digital text for students with disabilities who are unable to access traditional text materials. Current fair use laws don’t cover the need to convert/adapt text and then share it with other educators so that they don’t constantly have to reinvent the wheel. It would be wonderful if book publishers and authors, in addition to musicians, would start using the Creative Common copyright—it would allow teachers to provide access to materials for all students!

Hi Andy,

Nice article and I also like the book suggestion. On our new portal we publish open content courses and tutorials: http://www.open-of-course.org. Maybe that is a nice suggestion for you to watch?

What an interesting way to get people interested in reading! Book trailers are like movie trailers, but for books! You can find them all over the internet now, but here is a site that’s featuring them on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/booktrailers

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