According to the World International Property Organization, “Copyright is a legal term used to describe the rights that creators have over their literary and artistic works. Works covered by copyright range from books, music, paintings, sculpture and films, to computer programs, databases, advertisements, maps and technical drawings.” These works cannot be reproduced, performed, recorded, or adapted without permission of the author. For educators, this has implications for what materials they use and how they use them.
Each country has its own copyright laws. However, there are some international standards, most based on the Berne Convention. Original works are automatically protected regardless of the laws of the country where they originated. Under the Berne Convention, each country gives original work from any country the same protections. For example, if you find an e-book online by an author from another country, it’s protected by the same copyright laws as a book by an author from your own country.
Copyrighted work can’t be copied, recorded, performed publicly, broadcast, translated or adapted, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used at all! Most countries allow the limited use of copyrighted content without permission in certain circumstances – for example, for educational purposes.
Professor Renee Hobbs, Director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media and author of Copyright Clarity: How Fair Use Supports Digital Learning, explains how the rights of creators are balanced with the rights of users.
“In the United States, the copyright law enables us to quote from, to excerpt from, and to use copyrighted material without payment or permission, especially when the social benefit of the use outweighs the harm to the copyright holder. […] That, of course, has powerful implications for what educators can do with copyrighted works in the classroom.”
Prof. Hobbs emphasized that when you use someone else’s work to transform it into something new, it is considered to be a new creative work.
“The understanding of transformativeness in the United States is now becoming a really important dimension of learning to be a creative author,” she said. “Knowing when you can repurpose other people’s bits of culture in making your own creative work. That becomes an essential competence for learning to be an author in a multimedia age.”
Under the Berne Convention, copyright lasts for 50 years after the death of the author. In some circumstances, like if the author is unknown, the duration is 50 years after the release of the work. For applied art and photographic works, the minimum copyright term is 25 years.
After the copyright expires, the creative work becomes part of the public domain. Material in the public domain can be used freely and without permission for any purpose.
Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that has created a set of licenses that allow authors to make their work available for sharing, repurposing, and remixing, without giving up all of their rights. This is important for educators because it means that there is a vast selection of material that is free and legal to use. However, you should know about the different types of Creative Commons licenses and what each one allows you to do with the material.
How can you find these freely available materials? Creative Commons has a search page that links you to other search services that let you find open content. Even easier: in Google Advanced Search, you can filter your results by usage rights to find content that is free to use, share, and modify.
Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Educators can use, share, and even modify these materials. For example, you could download a set of exercises, adapt them to suit your students’ needs, and then re-upload your version to share with other educators.
There are several rich repositories of OER:
The OER Commons has almost 50,000 tools that you can browse and access online.
The Open Professionals Education Network has a guide to finding OER with a collection of useful links.
Open Education Europa’s Resources page has a large collection of resources in the 24 European languages and at all educational levels.
Since open content is easy to remix and repurpose, it becomes the responsibility of every user to be vigilant about the quality and integrity of the content they use and produce.
Prof. Hobbs commented, “That ‘marketplace of ideas’ concept that John Milton wrote so eloquently about at the beginning of the 18th century really does inspire us to think about relying on humans’ capacity to make good judgments and distinguish between quality and junk.”
If you are going to use open content from diverse sources, you need to know how to evaluate the material and the source, verify its content through other sources, and teach your students to do the same.
Prof. Hobbs will be speaking at the upcoming Media & Learning conference. Registration is still open and the full programme is available online.