Let them know that you’re versatile… Copyright or Copywrong?

When I was about 14, Napster was released. Napster was one of the first real user friendly file distribution systems to operate on the internet. I downloaded music to my computer and listened offline (note that I do purchase all music legally these days!). My friends did the same. One day however, the music industry started to take note. The case of Metallica vs Napster was brought. Napster lost, and the music industry alienated part of its young user base. The industry as a whole retaliated against MP3s. An early MP3 player called the Rio was subjected to a lawsuit by the RIAA, which, if the RIAA had won, might have changed the course of technological innovation in companies such as Apple. I haven’t bought many CDs since (mostly because I use things like youtube and spotify free), and if I do never would I buy one from the RIAA. This might seem childish, but then a multi-million dollar rock band threatening to sue my 14 year old friend for downloading some of their songs (because their CDs cost about 5 weeks pocket money) seemed overkill. I haven’t really trusted them since.

Napster circa 2000. The first easy to use and widespread file sharing platform.
(Img SRC: Etny.net, http://www.etny.net/important_moments_in_internet_Napster)

Like many industries, the music industry adapted to the internet poorly. They eagerly pursued their old streams of revenue and attempted to prevent change. The music industry has, in many ways, molded my view of copyright. To this day I do not see young people downloading music as a problem (as long as it is just for their own library). When students grow up they become more likely to pay the 99c for a song, probably because they have the money to spend. The same goes for films and computer games (especially now there are substantially less demos of games, and substantially more games costing upwards of $50). I am not saying people are entitled to these things, but if there were no piracy media would be a luxury for the middle class or rich – and that’s not the society I believe in.

(The IFPI report [2016] is an interesting read for some stats on this subject)


Images, information and video

But this weeks reading was about copyright law in essence. Copyright is important, but what is the most important part of copyright we teach our students? In terms of what affects our students, I think we can break copyright down into a few different categories:

  1. Taking somebody else’s work and purposefully presenting it as your own (Plagiarism).
  2. Taking somebody else’s work and not presenting it as either yours or anybody else’s (Ignorance, Laziness or Plagiarism).
  3. Taking somebody else’s work and noting somehow to the reader that it is not your own work (usually using a citation method).

In the first case this is a no brainier for students. When my friend was downloading Metallica, she never portrayed the work as her own. This constitutes in a way a theft (particularly if money is involved), and being a scientist I know my own subject is riddled with people taking credit for others work. It stands to reason that we discourage this, and teach students why this is bad.

The second is also quite straightforward, and this is where most students start. The first point is purposefully Plagiarism. The second however is ignorance of the rules, and teaching the rules to students is very important due to assumption some exam boards have that if you do 2 then you are trying to do 1. I happen to agree with this approach to copying as its the only way to be sure what a student submits is their own work, or has cited the work of others.

Part of how we teach this to students is in modelling. We as educators demonstrate how to properly attribute someone else’s work. Part of this is via taught classes. My school teaches attribution to all high school students so they know from early on how to properly reference someone else’s work. I attribute certain pictures I put up, and whenever I use worksheets I try to include the source. On my ‘Let Physics That’ website I have a Creative Commons attribution link the students can click to find out what I allow on the content on my own website.


Langwitches has an interesting post about the troubles that she has had with people not properly attributing her work. I understand and sympathize with her concerns, and I certainly agree that commercial entities or individuals passing information off as their own is morally wrong. Langwitches does have a problem too, which this latest blog post clearly demonstrates. From a teachers perspective however, the only profit I hope to gain from using other peoples images is to help students understand whilst saving myself time. It does make me a little sad that one day, some of the material I have put up on the internet, will get put aside because someone doesn’t know where it came from (me rarely having my name on any of my works). Im not selling my work, im trying to use good work to help teach students. If some others students learn from my stuff all the better.

But part of the point is that is is her choice, as it is her work. I respect that when we take work from other people, even if it will be seen by nobody outside of our classroom or used for mere minutes of a class, it should be attributed as per the authors wishes (I would however encourage her to put her own CC link on her blog to make it clearer).

I guess where I have a solid problem with copyright law is in student use of this material for purely class based projects. For example in my school we are pushing the use of technology in education, part of the reason I am completing this course. Sometimes I would like students to make videos to explain something, or demonstrate their work, or just as a learning exercise. But this is no easy feat. If the students want to make a good quality, engaging video they have to:

  • Script the work.
  • Plan the videography.
  • Make the ‘props’ to go in the video.
  • Make a soundtrack if they need it.
  • Post processing (titles etc).

Making a soundtrack in particular is a big task. Some software such as Garage Band makes it easier, but we dont teach Garage Band at school. It potentially adds a lot more time to the students project. If students understand the rules but choose when to work inside them, they can get better quality results but save time. If they are educated in the ways of copyright law they know not to publish their work unless it is 100% theirs or attributed appropriately. It also teaches students that you can have a level of flexibility about your work. Maybe one day when they publish a hit song, they wont start suing teenagers for including it in their Electronics project, or their World of Warcraft fan videos.


My own fan video – Music credits can be found at the end of the video.

J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter franchise is excellent in this respect, with many fansites using graphics from the films and stories from the books to build their websites.

Teaching students via an empathetic approach to copyright law is in my opinion the way to go. Having them think about how they would feel if they found some of their work had been reproduced and used or sold without their name associated with it. Students need to attribute work when they are producing certain things (Extended Essays, Internal Assessments etc), and we should be teaching this. However when it comes to in class projects that only we see, is the whole point not just that they learn? And when we do teach them how to attribute, lets teach them how to think empathetically if attribution is appropriate, or just a waste of time.


Clearly the most important part…

One last point on copyright and how (in this COETAIL’ers opinion) we need to be more flexible in its usage sometimes. It was this TED talk which reminded me of how re-mixing has lead to cultural shifts, and allowed others to express their own cultural identity. In 1980, cult rap group ‘The Suagrhill Gang’ released what is considered by some to be the first full length rap song, and is entered in the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress.


Rappers Delight (Album: Rappers Delight), Sugarhill Gang 1980, produced by Sugarhill Records.

The song is a 14 minute epic rap, but has one section where the lyrics are as follows:

A time to break and a time to chill
To act civilized or act real ill
But whatever ya do in your lifetime
Ya never let a MC steal your rhyme
So from six to six ’til this very day
Ill always remember what he had to say
So when the sucker emcees try to chump my style
I let them know that I’m versatile
I got style, finesse and a little black book
That’s filled with rhymes and I know you wanna look
But there’s a thing that separates you from me
And that is called originality
Because my rhymes are on from what you heard

Lyrics from: “Rappers Delight” (Album: Rappers Delight), Sugarhill Gang 1980, produced by Sugarhill Records.

Yet ironically, despite these lyrics, the song is littered with lyrics borrowed from other rappers. Not only that, but the distinctive bass line was famously from the song ‘Good Times’ by Chic. The intro was apparently borrowed from a British song ‘Here comes that sound again‘ by Love De-Luxe. You can read more here and test more samples here. Good Times was a hit in its own respect. Were it not for the Sugarhill gang sampling parts of these other songs we might not have the masterpiece that is Rappers Delight*, and that’s a world I dont know if I can do without.


* You might ask why they didn’t just ask the recording company for permission. This is a fair point, but cynical as I am, I feel like ‘give us too much money’ might have been the reply!

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