A new year, a new thought

Happy 2009!  And for many of us state employees, welcome back to work after our pleasant Christmas holidays.

Here’s an idea I’ll be exploring in 2009: a fresh look at Fair Use.

If you’ve missed the news, there’s a new set of guidelines – the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education.  These are being heavily discussed, and I can point you at the Blue Skunk blog (by Doug Johnson) for starters.  In brief, these new guidelines provide a much more liberal attitude toward the use of copyrighted media in educational settings than most of us have been taught.

The stance of the Center for Social Media (producers of the Code) is that learners and teachers suffer under overly-strict and confusing copyright rules, too conservatively interpreted.  Further, producers have overstepped by claiming rights that they really don’t have under the law.  I’ll not attempt to summarize the Code here, and I’m certainly no copyright lawyer – but the basic idea is “do it” if your circumstances fall under legal Fair Use.

This rather revolutionary document fits into the current trend of Creative Commons licensing and the open source movement. I’ve also been intrigued by Matt Mason’s ideas (author of  The Pirates’ Dilemma; watch his BookTV lecture for a synopsis).  Mr. Mason, not an educator, asserts that strict copyright laws actually inhibit innovation while piracy can result in very creative thinking.  His ideas are quite radical when compared to what we were taught in library school, but now may be the time to err on the side of fostering innovation rather than constricting it so much.

There are certainly dangers in these new trends.  For one, I can’t find any indication that this new Fair Use Code has any legal standing.  It is possible that educators will adopt it in practice, and that one or two might eventually end up sued.  Many of us are not in the financial position to fight a lawsuit, innocence and justice notwithstanding.

The larger concern is an ethical one. Many of us strive to obey the spirit of intellectual property law on moral grounds.  In my classes, I teach that the law is almost impossibly confusing and ambiguous, and in unclear situations a media specialist must investigate and seek the most ethical path.  I believe that the ethical position of these new guidelines is sound.  In fact, there have been many cases where the copyright laws do not seem to result in ethical results.  But we live in a time when academic plagiarism and greed-based piracy are easy and increasing.  Some will take these new guidelines as permission to commit piracies in the name of education that are far from ethical. Some will also make the mistake of claiming Fair Use rights when their situation does not qualify for these benefits.

So in 2009 I’m going to be watching this discussion develop and give it deep thought.  I commend the Center for Socia Media for taking the side of educators.

Mary Ann Fitzgerald

University of Georgia

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Posted on January 5, 2009, in Debate, Program administration. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Aren’t K-12 schools supposed to be conducting annual copyright workshops for teachers and other educators? How many schools can say they HAVE done that?

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