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Media assignments and copyright in the library

December 7, 2011

Image of a youtube player with a generic google image citationCopyright issues are a frequent concern with media assignments — for the librarian & professor — but not, perhaps, the student. In my informal observation, students will go to Google images directly after hearing an informational literacy session on copyright. Librarians have taken a few different approaches to dealing with these issues: information about copyright or the research process, a “scared straight” listing of the dire consequences of plagiarism and providing alternatives. Posit: providing alternatives is the best option. Here is why:

In “Facilitating Students’ Intellectual Growth in Information Literacy Teaching,” Gabrielle Wong urges librarians to be mindful of the students’ level of intellectual development. The article references the seminal work by Kurfiss in enumerating four stages of intellectual development:

Level 1: Dualism, knowledge as facts. Students believe that knowledge is a collection of discrete facts; therefore learning is simply a matter of acquiring information delivered by professors, who are viewed as the authority of right answers.
Level 2: Multiplicity, knowledge as opinion. Students realize that conflicting opinions, theories, and points of view are  inevitable features of knowledge. Without understanding the reasons behind the different perspectives, they attribute them to personal opinions, all of which they treat as equal.
Level 3: Relativism, knowledge as reason. Students recognize that not all opinions are equal; points of view should be backed up by good logic and evidence. They learn the importance of evaluating an issue by weighing multiple factors.
Level 4: Commitment in relativism, knowledge as commitment. Individuals take a position and make commitments of what they choose to do or believe. They are committed to nurturing ideas and developing themselves intellectually.

Students starting out at college (those normally the most widely reached by IL programs) are in the first 2 levels. Librarians know if one asks 3 copyright experts one can expect 3 interpretations of the fair use defense. Copyright is a very complex issue and the final “knowledge as commitment” decisions on copyright at an institution is an interplay of risk and reward analysis, interpretation of the law, knowledge of case law, risk adversity, and institutional culture.

In deciding whether to use a copyrighted image in a YouTube video, for example, as student may consider the following:

  • If I get sued for infringement is a fair use argument a viable strategy for defending my actions? Which begs the question…
  • Is it worth it for me to go to court over this assignment considering the cost and likelihood of success? All of which is obviated by…
  • Do I have the knowledge of DMCA take down procedures to understand that it is a “guilty until proven innocent” system whereby the owners have the right to demand take down until I prove a fair use exception in a process that will likely extend far beyond the due date of my assignment?

Further complicating the decision is “fair use guidelines” or “checklists,” which differ depending on the source and are not enshrined in law, but instead derived from case law.

This all speaks against the usefulness of giving students who recognize facts or equally valid opinions as the foundations of knowledge: they simply do not possess the intellectual development to make sense and decide copyright use-cases for themselves.

The “scared straight” option, on the other hand, runs contrary to the students’ experiential knowledge and perceptual inclinations. The data on plagiarism are a notoriously difficult set to pin down, but studies show that some students plagiarize on a regular basis and consequences are not always forthcoming. The numbers range widely as do the methodologies and a quick search in ERIC will highlight the controversies and difficulties. Considering all this, however, it is fair to say that some significant percentage of students have ambivalent perceptions about plagiarism and copyright violations online.

In sum, present materials licensed for educations as an “alternative” option without making much mention of copyright laws, rights, issues, or cases. Framing Creative Commons to students as, “Wow, the artists want you to use this to do creative projects and all they ask for is a little credit” works to change the student’s perception more than enumerating the academic policies on plagiarism or trying in 50 minutes or less to wade into the morass of copyright law before students are ready.

Kurfiss, Joanna G. Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practices, and Possibilities. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report     No. 2, (Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development, 1988)

Wong, G. W. (2010). Facilitating Students’ Intellectual Growth in Information Literacy Teaching. Reference & User Services Quarterly50(2), 114-118.

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