CopyWRONG to CopyRIGHT: 8 Steps for Teaching Students to Avoid Copyright Infringement

The Problem

I recently wrote a blog post about my frustrations with copyright infringement, especially when it comes to images. More than anything, I want my students to create, share and connect over the web because it lends a real-world authenticity to their work and learning. Great projects, we know, often include great images, and images teach alongside the text. We blogged in a closed forum last year, and students sometimes grabbed images or video to enhance their work. I didn’t fully understand copyright or fair use laws at the time, and so we went about inserting images in blog posts and projects.

I’m a little better informed now, and to my chagrin, my students and I were likely infringing all over the place last year. We used a closed Kidblog forum, only accessible by password; it was for educational, editorial, or critical purposes, and we even began citing sources for images toward the end of the year. The problem is not what we were doing per se. Some may argue with me, but they were in fourth grade, and it was in a classroom environment. Come on! No, in the absence of a judge deciding our case, I think we could fall under fair use standards if we began properly citing the work. However, this is not the real issue.

The real issue is that these fourth graders will be in high school in a blink of an eye, then college, then in the adult world. As they grow, expand their horizons and their audience, giving them a break is not going to prepare them for the realities of being a digital publisher or instill them with the values of responsible digital citizenship.

So where do we go from here? I want to teach my students these things, but I don’t want to stifle their creativity! I don’t want to add on a bunch of unreasonable restrictions or requirements for what media they can and can’t use in their posts. I don’t want to confuse them.

After stewing in my own juices for a while, feeling frustrated and feeling like there were no options, I started to think about why we have copyright laws in the first place. They don’t exist just to thwart me and my students from creating great projects.

The reason that we right-click and “borrow” images from other people is because it actually does take quite a bit of work to produce and create professional and powerful images. Many of us don’t have the time or talent. Or so we might think.

Some of the things I mentioned in my previous post on this topic are that I just didn’t think the time involved in creating our own images would work. There are also the professional quality and accuracy issues. Not to mention that they could be writing about something, and they’re simply not there. We study Greece, and we have no field trip planned, unfortunately.

Rethinking the Problem

Putting all that aside, I kept thinking. I needed to find a way around this. Telling my students, “No pictures on your blog,” is not a reasonable solution. Rather than thinking about copyright laws as a barrier, something that prevents me and my students from enhancing our work on the Internet, I started to think about it as a jumping off point. Maybe we should actually be creating our own images in the first place. The projects we did last year had great visuals chosen by students, but…

Unconsciously, I decided to give it a go. On my own blog, did I really need to look for images on the public domain? Although I’ve been making an effort in the past two years to personally only use images that are in the public domain, I wasn’t sourcing them correctly, so I made a decision to go through my current blog and delete every image (except one under CC) that I had used and replace it with something that I have created. The results varied of course because I’m not a professional graphic designer. However, I am really happy with some of the results, even happier than when I had used public domain pictures before.

I think this could happen for my students as well. I think that it could be really empowering for them to get involved in creating their own images and videos to enhance the work on their blogs, understanding that the reasons why they have to do this actually protect them as well. We could turn this around and make a positive – an opportunity to focus on creating powerful content. I’m teaching the same group of kids next year in fifth grade. This is the perfect opportunity to invite them to expand the understanding of plagiarism we developed last year for print media and extend it to images.

The Plan

Here’s my counter-copyright infringement plan for me and my students:

  • Step 1: Introduce students right away to the ideas and concepts behind copyright infringement of images and media. Tie it to plagiarism and connect to print media. Explain the differences, that we can quote and source print media for academic purposes, but that using an image without permission is not allowed.
  • Step 2: Explain to students that because this is true, we are going to focus creating our own image content.
  • Step 3: Explain that we can use each other, our classroom and the school as an environment to find interesting images to use in our projects. Before sending the release form we send to parents, use it as an opportunity to discuss release laws. Have students signs their own release document to each other allowing each other to photograph and use the pictures in each other’s work.
  • Example:


  • Step 4: Assign the Animoto homework I designed earlier, but this time, require that they need to take all the pictures they use themselves. Assign successive projects with the same parameters.
  • Step 5: Introduce and practice using photo editing apps and web 2.0 tools to enhance their photos.

Later, after some time practicing making their own pictures to post on their blogs….

Creative Commons

  • Step 6: Creative Commons

A. Introduce the Creative Commons Search on Flickr and Google Advanced Search to find public domain photos (filter by “usage rights”).

B. Teach them how to check for the Creative Commons restrictions and accurately cite the photo. (Great resource for the how-to of citing images: Kreb’s Class Blogs.) This will address the times when we need photos of places we simply can’t get to or illustrate concepts that are not possible to create. We will also have a simple method for protecting ourselves against stolen content on Flickr:

Public Domain Photos
Image: Danielle Metzler on TeachCuriously

Doubts may come in for example, if the artist has taken a picture of someone else’s art, or if it uses logos or other trademarks, etc. A note: I will be teaching them to cite the artist’s name and link to the original image as I did above with my own image. I’ve seen other methods of citing that also indicate the original title of the work and link to the specific CC license it’s shared under. Examples of this more extensive method of citing can be found here. You’ll find licenses here under “View License Deed.”

C. Show them how to apply CC licenses to their own work.

  • Step 7: Teach them about fair use laws and the difference between linking to something and embedding it in your own blog.
  • Step 8: Reinforce and reteach these concepts as necessary, using the questions, gray areas and uncertainties that are bound to come up as opportunities for discussion and making decisions together. Perhaps, even having our own fair use panel of judges to decide on difficult cases.
  • Throughout the Year: Provide time during projects to create images or content including video and pictures using each other as models and the environment.
  • The Roll-Out

    I plan to roll out these steps over the course of the first 6-8 weeks of school. I’m not going to hit them with it all at once. What I am going to emphasize strongly, right from the beginning, is that we can’t use images without the artist’s permission. Time and discussion will allow us to add shades of gray to this rule and practice acting responsibly.

    For Step 5 (Introduce photo editing tools), I want to give a big shout out to the iPad app, Over, and the Web tool, I plan to write separate articles on the features of these two tools.

    I can imagine that the prospect of having student create their own image and video content could be daunting for some. Perhaps, you want to skip steps 2-5 and begin by teaching students about searching for photos in the public domain and fair use laws. In any case, I now whole-heartedly believe that teaching students about copyright law is the right thing to do to prepare them for a future we can’t yet imagine, and encouraging them to create their own content instead would be empowering them to make a difference they might not have done so otherwise.

    Final Thoughts

    In conclusion, I believe that rather than staying frustrated with copyright, infringing on others’ rights, or potentially, putting a stop to sharing rich media content all together, I believe this is a more positive direction. It puts the focus back where it should be: students creating brilliant, thoughtful and inspiring work.

    And finally, after drafting this post, I stumbled upon this Ted Talk video that put this whole issue so perfectly into perspective for me. An artist, named Phil Hansen, dedicated to Pointillism developed a tremor in his hand from the exacting work and was no longer able to produce the art he was so passionate about. Eventually he learned to “Embrace the Shake” and went on to produce amazing, creative and inspiring art despite, or he might say, inspired by his limitations.


    One thought on “CopyWRONG to CopyRIGHT: 8 Steps for Teaching Students to Avoid Copyright Infringement

    1. This plan worked well. I haven’t been able to fully roll out steps 6-8 with the class, but I have worked with individual students on this when it came up. By simply putting the emphasis on using images they create, we’ve done a lot in this area. In other projects, I’ve required that students cite the link to the picture. Copy/Pasting a link is easy enough for them to do, and we can work on developing their abilities to properly format sources for images in the months to come.

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