Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Copyright Infringement as it Applies to Students and Teachers

In 1790, the first U.S. Copyright Act was first created by George Washington and enacted by Congress. The statute gave authors of books, maps, and charts ownership of their work for up to 28 years. ("The copyright site") Since then several modifications have been made to copyright laws in order to clarify new situation or technologies. For example, in 1909, Congress amended the law to include sound recordings. In 1998, Congress specifically enacted a Digital Millenium Copyright Act to regulate issues related to digital storage, retrieval, reproduction and display of copyright material. ("The copyright site")

Admittedly, many people don't take copyright protection as seriously as they should. They think that it is legally and ethically acceptable to use someone else's work and "call it their own," especially if they think that they will not be caught or punished for using it. However, abusing copyright law is neither legal or ethical. People who use copyrighted work without permission are sometimes subject to a criminal misdemeanor or felony, prosecutable by the U.S. Department of Justice. (The Library of Congress, 2010)

The "Fair Use Doctrine," initially enacted in 1841 and again amended in 1976, was added to the copyright laws so that people could legally use a portion of copyrighted material if it was for non profit or educational purposes. The fair use component allowed both students and teachers to able to reproduce a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson. However, the fair use law is often misunderstood, and copyright is a significant ethical issue in education. Many teachers and students are misusing other people's work, some purposefully and some not on purpose.

In many ways, technology has made it easier for some copyright laws to be broken. For example, the availability of scanners and high speed copiers have made it possible for teachers to easily copy copyrighted print works for their students. Admittedly, the vast majority of these teachers do not intend to break copyright laws. It is my experience that most teachers who copy copyrighted material copy it because they were unable to acquire funding for the textbook, trade book, magazine, etc. itself. So, to be able to use the work in with their students, they simply copy it using the technology that is available to them.

On August 1, 2010, the New York Times published an article titled "Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age" ( The article argued that today's students don't understand that using words that they didn't write is unethical. In the article, Teresa Fishman of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, says that "“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author. It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.” Furthermore, surveys conducted from 2006 to 2010 by Donald L. McCabe of the Center for Academic Integrity and a business professor at Rutgers University showed that about 40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments. "Perhaps more significant, the number who believed that copying from the Web constitutes “serious cheating” is declining — to 29 percent on average in recent surveys from 34 percent earlier in the decade." (

Since software is also copyrighted, it is also important that school personnel ensure that the schools are in compliance with copyright regulations with regards to their digital property. For example, when schools purchase a certain number of copies of a specific software program, they have to be sure not to violate the copyright guidelines and allow installation on more than the allowed number of computers. They must also ensure that district software is not being illegally copied for use outside of the school Similarly, they have to ensure that the school equipment is not being used for activities that violate copyright issues.

At the beginning of this decade, illegal music sharing sites are used by many students in secondary and post secondary schools. They were clear examples of copyright violations and the recording industry attempted to fine students who used them. (See This "crackdown" helped to stop or greatly diminish the use of many of these music and file sharing websites. Although they are still used by many students, services such as Amazon MP3 and iTunes have become legal options for music sharing.

When making decisions regarding copyright, educational decision makers have to consider several factors. Even though it may be tempting to participate in or allow copyright infringement through the unauthorized duplication of text or electronic media, school decision makers must consider the ethical issues. After all, educators are supposed to be role models for their students. Educator must consider many questions, asking themselves if they are sending the right message through their actions? Also, should someone who is a "teacher" allow themselves or others to take credit for something that they didn't create or buy?

As Dr. Christopher Unger of Northeastern University stated in a lecture for a graduate level Ethics course, "Ethical Decision Making is multi-layered." In other words, when considering ethics in relation to copyright infringement, educators must think about then entire issue and not just what is on the surface. Specifically, teachers cannot allow copyright infringement with regards to print or electronic media. They must look beyond the potential cost savings of copying someone else's work, remembering that the creator undoubtedly put time and effort into their work. As educators, a person's "intellectual property" should be very valuable to them. Additionally, they must remember that if they model inappropriate action in regards to copyright compliance, their students will do the same.

For more information on this topic, please visit these websites:


  1. HI Jennifer,

    Nice posts and very interactive. I would agree that the white border makes it a bit difficult to read.

    Although, I think there is a need to embrace technology and go with the mentality "if you can't beat em', join em'," I do feel that such technology while creating many positives also has some critical negatives. I tell my students that instead of laughing in class at a joke, they are more apt to text or write on their facebook wall, LOL. Techonolgy has replaces the face-to-face communication and not always for the better. I am seeing more and more people forget what it means to have an interactive, engaging conversation, and instead rely heavily on the use of a keyboard for rich conversation and feedback.

    I look forward to reading your blog!

  2. I am regular reader of your blog and no doubt it all stuff is awesome. The best thing about your sharing and posting is that you always provide content that is helpful for both the newbie and experts. Looking for more stuff and tutorials.

    Love from Tech Solutions Desk

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