Debatable topic #3: Copyright Commando or Ultimate Informant?

This is our third “debatable” topic of interest…

“Should the SLMS only teach about copyright issues through staff development or take a more aggressive role in informing faculty and students of the law?”

Copyright infringement happens all the time in our schools. Oftentimes, it occurs because the teacher is not even aware that they are breaking copyright law. I can recall many instances when I stumbled upon someone infringing on copyright guidelines: making illegal copies of sheet music, recording full length songs onto video, using the opaque to copy Big Bird for the bulletin board, photocopying full texts so every student in the class would have a copy, and the list goes on. Exactly how proactive and assertive should the SLMS be in dealing with copyright issues such as this? While it is obvious that the teacher who is committing an infringement should be told they are doing so, should the SLMS routinely check to see if such situations are occurring?

One school of thought is that the SLMS should go beyond simply informing students, teachers and administrators about copyright law by taking measures that expand their basic knowledge in this area. For instance, Doug Johnson suggests the SLMS can become a “copyright counselor” by guiding students and teachers to make informed decisions regarding copyright and fair use. The more assertive you are in informing students and faculty of copyright laws, the more likely they are to understand that this is theft and support punishment of offenders. The better informed faculty and students are, the more likely there will be no embarrassing infringements for the school and school system. When the role of copyright officer is taken more seriously and aggressively by the SLMS, the more protected the users of information will be.

The opposite viewpoint is that the SLMS should only present a good, basic overview of most copyright infringements through an in-service at the beginning of the school year. Teachers can inform students in their classes about proper use of resources and explain what is, and what is not, allowed regarding copyright. Rather than spending precious time and energy distributing detailed information beyond a basic staff development session, the SLMS should budget for legal purchase of needed materials, help teachers obtain legal copyright permissions, and model ethical and moral behavior regarding copyright law. Informing teachers and students at the point of infringement is sufficient; there is no need to offend teachers by presenting more details than necessary when dealing with sensitive copyright issues.

The next question becomes: when a teacher is observed breaking copyright guidelines, should you turn them in to the administration or look the other way? I think the goal here is to lead the faculty and students to a point where they automatically seek out the proper way of dealing with copyright “situations” when there is a question. If the SLMS can get users to first recognize when there might be an issue of copyright clearance, present this question to him/her as copyright officer in the school, and then respond based on the allowable actions, just maybe the more appropriate title could be COPYRIGHT GURU!

(I strongly recommend the Carol Mann Simpson book Copyright for schools.)

Johnson, D. (2007, June 13). Lessons school librarians teach others. Retrieved July 23, 2008, from

Russell, C. (2004). Complete copyright: An Everyday guide for librarians. Chicago: ALA.

Simpson, C.M. (2005). Copyright for schools: A Practical guide. 4th ed. Worthington, Ohio: Linworth.

Dr. Phyllis R. Snipes
University of West Georgia

Posted on July 24, 2008, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hi GLMAguest,

    Thanks for mentioning my old copyright article. I have had something of a heart-change about the topic this year.

    If interested, my wiki has the text of a talk I’ve given recently and will serve as the basis of a forthcoming SLJ article on the topic:

    In a nutshell, we need to move from being enforcers to enablers, teaching more about what CAN be done with copyrighted material and less about what CAN’T be done.

    All the best,


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