The Right Stuff: Teaching Kids About Copyright

Help kids learn how to find and use other people's creative works legally and ethically.

July 21, 2017
Tara Woodall
Media specialist/librarian
Golden Valley High School
Merced, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, In the Classroom

We (rightfully) spend significant time and energy teaching kids to be aware of their digital footprints. Stories abound about momentary lapses of judgment leading to loss of employment or scholarships. Students tend to embrace these lessons because they care about reputation. Obviously, we must continue these important lessons; however, we must realize that digital citizenship encompasses other online behavior, too.

I’m talking about teaching kids about copyright.

We should choose to teach copyright not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because the goal of understanding copyright will serve to measure the best of student energies, skills, and citizenship.

It can be hard to get moral compasses to twitch when discussing the intricacies of copyright law, public domain, fair use, and Creative Commons. Those concepts seem abstract and removed from the concerns of adolescents. It can be even harder to break them of the habit of doing a Google image search and grabbing the first relevant and powerful image they see. But remember that John F. Kennedy famously talked about the importance of doing the "hard stuff" in his "moon speech" at Rice Stadium in 1962. He spoke of the importance of getting to the moon, but I think that we can take the spirit of his words and apply them to teaching this particular tough corner of digital citizenship. I’m here to argue that we should choose to teach copyright not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because the goal of understanding copyright will serve to measure the best of student energies, skills, and citizenship.

Because the Common Core calls for us to teach students how to "use technology, including the internet, to produce and publish writing," educators can teach kids about copyright as they teach the Common Core writing standards. Teachers simply need to teach some key concepts, share some tools, and model digital citizenship in terms of copyright explicitly in the classroom. Frankly, it isn’t as hard as getting to the moon. With the right resources, our students will be out-of-this-world digital citizens in no time at all.

Teach Concepts

Students need to understand the following concepts: copyright, public domain, fair use, and Creative Commons. Fortunately, teachers can access numerous resources and lessons to help give kids the foundation to make wise choices online.

  • Common Sense Education has lessons and wonderful animated videos on copyright and fair use.
  • Creative Commons provides fantastic resources in the form of videos about how copyright and Creative Commons licenses work together.
  • Teaching Copyright from the Electronic Frontier Foundation offers information on public domain.

Linger and explore those websites for more goodies to share with your students. Stress the fact that all creations are copyrighted, so that students look for Creative Commons licenses instead of the visible absence of a ©.

Share Tools

I have shown students a variety of ways to find Creative Commons-licensed photos using Flickr and Google Image Search. With these tools, students had to create the attributions for each image they used. While I'm glad I took the time to show them how to attribute, I wasn't happy with how much time was devoted to copying, pasting, and formatting all the needed information for attribution.

Fortunately for all of us, the folks from Storyboard That have created an amazing tool for kids to use: Photos for Class. This website uses a filtering system and searches Flickr images for photos that are safe for students to use. In their FAQ, they do claim that some inappropriate images could slip through, but they argue that "if you compare a search using Photos for Class vs. Google images (even with SafeSearch on), the amount of inappropriate content is greatly reduced."

Often kids happen upon a much stronger visual aid because they use images more as metaphors rather than literal representations of ideas.

What I love about this tool is that once kids find an image that will work for their writing, presentation, website, or whatever, they can download it with the proper attribution already present in a watermark. Kids don’t have to spend the time crafting the attribution; it's done perfectly for them. This saves time for kids to refine their ability to use keywords to get the exact images they need.

Be aware that students may grow worried they cannot find exactly what they want right away. For instance, if some of my students want to use images of Marvel characters for a particular presentation, but can't find what they want in Photos for Class, I use this as a learning opportunity. I challenge students to think about the purpose of the visual aid. I ask them to think about the idea that they are trying to convey. We come up with different keyword searches. Often kids happen upon a much stronger visual aid because they use images more as metaphors rather than literal representations of ideas.

Model, Model, Model

When you use images in your lessons, make sure you go with images that you have the permission to use. Ensure that the correct attribution is visible. Draw students’ attention to the fact that you're a good digital citizen. Perhaps most important, throughout the year point out that you struggled to find the right image but were happy to do the right thing.

At times, this process will be hard because it takes a little more time to find an image that we have permission to use. Acknowledge this fact with your students. If students take the easy route and use copyrighted material, ask them to replace the image with a Creative Commons-licensed image. Never lose sight of the goal. This is about more than images in schoolwork. This is about citizenship and doing the right thing.

For more on this topic, check out the video, "Copyright and Fair Use Animation."



Walter Sandoval
Special education instructor
Los Angeles Academy Middle School

Fair use is a feature of US copyright law. There is no fair use defense, as such, in the UK. I'm by no means an expert on UK copyright law, but I believe there's a defense similar to the US's doctrine of de minimis copying, which is similar to, but distinct from fair use. In essence you argue that you copied so little, that the copied portion either isn't subject to copyright protection or that what you did doesn't constitute copying at all. Think short phrases. If I copy "it was a dark and stormy night" as the opening line of my novel directly from A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle won't win a copyright suit against me. (Aside: there's no novelty requirment for copyright, the fact that L'Engle wasn't the first to write "a dark and stormy night" isn't what stops her from suing me, though the concept of derivative works muddies this slightly.)