Students and Copyright: Discipline and Punish?
Microsoft has just come out with a new survey on student’s attitudes towards online copyright. The research suggests that very few students have a strong understanding of the issue, but it also makes me wonder just how they’re defining the nature of copyright, and whether it takes into account fair use as much as it should.
This Wednesday, the company announced the results of a survey of 501 students ranging from grades 7th through 10th. The polling, conducted by KRC Research, included an online survey and interviews that took place last month.
The survey examined students’ perspectives on whether illegal downloading was worthy of some form of punishment. “Less than half of the teens surveyed (48 percent) indicated punishment was appropriate for illegal downloading, while 90 percent indicated punishment was appropriate for stealing a bike,” they report, without defining what type of “punishment” they had in mind. (For example, are they actually equating the crime of illegal downloading with same level of criminal severity of someone stealing a bike?)
Nearly half of those students surveyed (49 percent) said they weren’t familiar with rules and copyright laws regarding downloading content from the Internet. In contrast, only 11 percent said they felt they understood copyright “very well.”
Technology blog Ars Technica offers more details from the survey about where these better-informed students learned about copyright and what should be done with IP scofflaws:
Half of those who said they understood the laws of the land reported that their parents were their main source of information on copyright infringement (65 percent for younger teens), while TV, magazines, and newspapers came in a far second at 14 percent. Those knowledgeable about copyright were also more likely to think that illegal downloading should be punishable, with 82 percent saying that punishment should be required and another 28 percent feeling “strongly” about the issue.
In limited situations, you can use copyrighted works without permission from the copyright holder. It can be difficult to figure out whether use of copyrighted works without permission is legal, though, because the laws in this area are often vague and vary from country to country.
The copyright law in the United States has a doctrine called “fair use”. Fair use provides a defense to copyright infringement in some circumstances. For example, fair use allows documentary filmmakers to use very short clips of copyrighted movies, music and news footage without permission from the copyright owner. Fair use is a difficult concept because determining whether something is a fair use involves weighing four factors. Unfortunately, weighing the fair use factors rarely results in a clear-cut answer.
Rather than applying a fair use test, many other countries have specific exceptions to copyright infringement. The number and type of exceptions vary by country, but they frequently allow copyrighted materials to be used without permission from the copyright holder for activities such as nonprofit research, teaching, news reporting, or private study.If you incorrectly decide that something is a fair use or falls into an exception to copyright infringement, you could be held criminally and civilly liable and have to pay damages. We suggest you talk to a lawyer if you have questions regarding fair uses of copyrighted works.
I find it fascinating that a site supposedly dedicated to teaching students about copyright advises them to consult a lawyer regarding fair use. The message here seems to be that it’s better to be safe that sorry and err on the side of caution - ie, get absolute permission for everything you do if you don’t want to be criminally prosecuted. It’s that kind of fearmongering that’s made it nearly impossible for educators and students to even learn about fair use, let alone apply it in their curricular activities.
“This survey provides more insight into the disparity between IP awareness and young people today and highlights the opportunity for schools to help prepare their students to be good online citizens,” Sherri Erickson of Microsoft concludes in its press release. I totally agree with the point that schools need to get more involved with teaching kids about online copyright. I just hope that when they implement a copyright curriculum, they seek out multiple viewpoints first. -andy