Copyright, Creativity and Change

Markus Spiske

Setting the scene

A number of recent events have led to this post.

The first was the publication of a terrific blog post by Elizabeth Hutchinson who wrote about Why copyright ‘For educational purposes’ is becoming a real problem.

The second was my participation as co-leader of Topic 2, Sharing and Openness for Open Networked Learning (ONL191), an online course I have been involved with since 2016.

Finally was the vote by the European Parliament in favour of Article 13, part of the European Union’s new Copyright Directive that determines how “online content sharing services” e.g. social media sites like Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube licence manage copyright protected material uploaded by people other than the copyright holders.

While none of these directly relate to each other, they certainly have gotten me thinking about the complexities of copyright, content ownership and the digital, remixable world we live in, where everyone can be a creator and publisher. Current copyright laws (in Australia) were not designed for this environment. When laws are updated (as in the European Union), we still do not see nuanced approaches to managing the situation. Protecting copyright using filters and blanket licencing (all rights reserved) does not seem to provide the nuanced response that we need to serve the purposes of both those who (deservedly) want to protect their income derived from content creation, and those who want to create avenues through which it may be shared.

When content was physical, it was very difficult to reproduce or remix, but digital content is s different story. Bits and bytes can be replicated perfectly – paint strokes on canvas not so much. To make matters even more complicated, it is also easier to bend and blend bits and bytes, to remix and merge into multimodal creations in which multiple copyrights exist. Take this example:

“Multiple copyrights can exist in a single product,” explained lawyer Kathy Berry, from Linklaters. “Video game studios own various copyrights in their games: the underlying code, the graphics, music, dialogue.

“When a gamer creates a video game video for YouTube, the video itself is a new copyright work owned by the gamer. However, as it also incorporates copyright works owned by the video game studios, the authorisation of both the gamer and the studio would be required to put it online.” What is Article 13? The EU’s copyright directive explained

So what is the point of this post?

All three events raised so far point me to the important  essential role educators must play in teaching about copyright, intellectual property and how to navigate and respond ethically through its murky waters. We want to lead our students to see themselves as creators of content, constructors of new knowledge and active participants in the read-write world of the web – and information management concepts including copyright are key building blocks necessary for this to happen.

In Australia, part of the complexities of copyright are alleviated for teachers through Statutory and Voluntary Licences which enable some flexibility for educational purposes. We in Australia do not have access to the doctrine of Fair Use and so we rely upon these licences to enable us to share copyrighted materials in ways not normally permissible for the purposes of teaching and learning. However these licences require that materials and content are restricted (eg by use of a password) to teachers and students. In the days when the classroom had four walls, and students published their work to the pinboard, this restriction did not pose any hurdles. Even the introduction of computers and learning management systems did not pose problems as they created digital walls for the classroom. However as these walls crumble, and we embrace the fact that students (and teachers) use, publish to and create in openly accessible platforms on the WWW,  restricting learning to this closed environment becomes a much greater challenge.

It’s not just school teachers and students who face this issue. In higher education institutions, students are often asked to publish assessment online, to build their professional digital identity and to give tasks authenticity and value beyond the due date. Learners who engage with MOOCs and other online course such as Open Networked Learning must also become more aware of issues of copyright when publishing to a global audience. Further, those who engage with learning online must be aware that copyright laws differ from country to country; what is legal in one nation under Fair Use may be a breach of copyright in another, and as copyright laws come under scrutiny (such as they have in the European Union), changes may take place that influence their learning even if they do not reside in that particular location.

This sounds so complex!

I personally have a strong interest in copyright, but a strong interest is not enough to render the complicated lawyer speak and legalese of changing copyright conditions clear. For those less interested, it probably seems even more impenetrable, and time poor educators (understandably) place it far down their list of things to do and learn.

Banksy in Boston: F̶O̶L̶L̶O̶W̶ ̶Y̶O̶U̶R̶ ̶D̶R̶E̶A̶M̶S̶ CANCELLED, Essex St, Chinatown, Boston flickr photo by Chris Devers shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

To this I have two responses:

1st is to make friends with your librarian. This is part of their remit. Universities commonly have specific library staff who work in this area, and schools…well…this is one of the many reasons why every school needs to have a qualified, full time teacher librarian or school librarian. Knowledge of copyright is often seen as simply a protection to avoid ‘doing the wrong thing’, and yet we do great disservice to our students if we do not educate them about how to use and re-use information ethically, responsibly and in a way that also allows others to build on their work.

2nd is take some time (I know! what time!) to familiarise yourself with the world of the Public Domain and Creative Commons licencing. It is not that complicated, I promise, and once you invest this time, you will be so empowered! A quick overview of the Public Domain and Creative Commons is available here and you can download a printable overview and infographics which you can print for your library or workplace here and here.

A guide to copyright and creative commons
Click to download PDF version


Content shared to the internet or released to the Public Domain is content that may be freely used, manipulated and republished without any reference, citation or acknowledgement. (Of course, if you do know the original owner, it’s nice to attribute them, but it is not legally required). Public Domain consists of content where the copyright has expired (i.e. usually its quite old, at least 75 years old in most cases) or it has been donated directly to the Public Domain by creators who wish to see their work used but do not want or require attribution.

Creative Commons is a way of licencing content so that others know how the creator intended for their work to be used. Rather than all rights reserved (copyright) it is a some rights reserved model, and the licence tells you which rights have been waived and how you can therefore use or reuse the work.

So I end my post with a call to educate ourselves and others. While the use of copyrighted material may remain complicated (and may become more complicated as Article 13 indicates), there are a growing number of sites and sources which offer content which can be used.

Go forth! 🙂

As Austin Kleon says, we should learn to ‘Steal Like an Artist‘ and recognise that our creative potential and our desire to teach and learn openly does not have to be limited by copyright laws and confusion!

Steal Like An Artist – “Good theft vs. bad theft” flickr photo by Austin Kleon shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

3 thoughts on “Copyright, Creativity and Change”

  1. This is a complex issue that took some time to come to terms with as a teacher librarian of a school library. The teachers themselves needed as much educating as the students. It is common for everyone to know a little of copyright, that they may have encountered, but never the full picture. Thanks for this. It is becoming a very complex issue but an even a more important one.
    Enjoyed your blog as always

    1. Thank you Denise! I agree that as technologies change, it is becoming increasingly important to have a basic understanding of copyright, or even better, to know where to go to seek advice ! Thanks for your support of my blog, I really appreciate it :).

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