Copyrights and the Sixth Grade

small__74907741At a class lecture today, my audience peppered me with some of the most thought-provoking questions that I have received about intellectual property matters.  As a frequent seminar speaker on IP issues, I often lead discussions with entrepreneurs at business incubators, with attorneys at CLE courses, and executives in client seminars.

Today, my challenge was even greater:  teaching copyright law to my daughter’s sixth grade class.

The task at hand was straightforward.  The class was about to launch a student newspaper and website.  The teachers wanted the students to understand basic copyright concepts before the kids just started copying photos and other content from websites and pasting that content into the school newspaper.

The basic legal rule was pretty straightforward, too:  just because it’s on the web doesn’t mean that it’s free for the taking.  As I explained, if a photo is published on a news site, somebody used their time and professional talent to take that photo.  The photographer may have spent money learning his or her trade, obtaining press credentials, and perhaps even purchasing special equipment to make the photo just right.  Copyright law ensures that the photographer retains control over his or her work.  The creator may, if asked, choose to grant you permission to copy the photo in a student newspaper.  However, as I told the students, you can’t just assume that you have that permission.  You have to ask for it.

The students understood the basic concept, but then quickly starting asking some of the most challenging questions surrounding digital media today:  “Does this mean that I can’t post any photo that I like on Instagram?”  “I posted a photo on Facebook, and then somebody else posted it on another website — can they do that?”  “If I bought an item that contains infringing material, does that mean that I am now an infringer?”

Although the questions came from sixth graders, they are very similar to the questions facing today’s leading copyright law experts and policy makers. William Patry’s “How to Fix Copyright” argues that copyright law is outdated and no longer serves many of its original purposes when applied to new digital media.  Social Media sites are frequently in the news for making even small changes to their copyright policies (even if the news reports are not always correct).  The White House’s Office of the U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator is seeking public comment on issues just like these.

In just a few short years, some of these sixth graders may be our next digital media entrepreneurs, policy crafters and newsmakers.  It will be exciting to see how copyright law develops over the next few years — and how these kids will shape the copyright law of the future.

(photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/dcjohn/74907741/”>dcJohn</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;)

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