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Can students reuse someone else’s work?

March 12, 2020

Can students reuse someone else’s work in their own creations? When would doing so run afoul of copyright laws? If you’ve made movies, designed websites, or created ebooks with your students, you might have pondered this question. Students are often avid consumers of digital content, but when they take on the hat of creators in the classroom, this question is important to consider.

At the beginning of this year, I featured a blog post all about how to teach copyright in the classroom. It featured some fantastic, free resources, and I was so excited to see all of the buzz about the post on social media. Understanding how to create a product (movie, ebook, etc.) with copyright in mind is essential for students.

In today’s blog post, I’d like to take this idea a bit further to explore Fair Use, Creative Commons, and Public Domain. Whether you have the definitions of these three terms in your back pocket or not, you’ve probably heard them before. These terms are an essential component of a conversation on lawful ways for students to reuse other’s work in their creations.

Ways for Students to Reuse Someone Else’s Work

Although my role as a classroom teacher has changed, I spend a lot of time each year in schools and classrooms. Creativity and creation is a big part of my work, and if you’re familiar with my book, Tasks Before Apps, that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

The question in the title of this blog post often pops into my conversations. This is especially true when I am sitting side-by-side with a student creator or talking to teachers about creation in the classroom. It might not be framed the same way, but instead might sounds like:

  • Can I use this song in my video?
  • Can I pull a picture off of Google Image search?
  • Do I have to give credit for this photo?
  • If I don’t post my video to YouTube, is it okay that I don’t have permission to use this music?

Students often want to reuse media they found somewhere else (ex. photos, video clips, music) in their own creations. This situation might happen when they want to find an image to illustrate a concept in an ebook, blog post, or website they’re making. Or when students wish to add their favorite song as the soundtrack for a movie or slideshow they are making.

There are lawful ways to reuse someone else’s work. I want to make sure you know how to support students as they create something of their own this school year.

Copyright & Creativity Resources

I first connected with the team at Copyright & Creativity last year. They have a website full of entirely free resources for students and teachers. As we discuss this idea, I will reference some of their resources. You can find everything I mention on their website, and I’ll add a few links that take you to more specific resources around this topic. 

Of course, I love free resources, but I am particularly excited about the high-quality of their collection of lessons and activities. Let’s jump back into this question, Can students reuse someone else’s media in their own creations — without violating copyright?

Fair Use in the Classroom

You might have heard the term fair use before. Fair use is one avenue to consider when tackling this question with students. The concept of fair use may feel intimidating to teach since it’s complicated. It involves judgment calls rather than straightforward, black-and-white rules. 

The video below shares the limitations of copyright and provides an overview of fair use.

The Copyright & Creativity resources do the heavy-lifting when it comes to introducing this concept to students. They have easy-to-use slides and videos that communicate the basics and can open the door to classroom discussion. They also have an Infographic on Fair Use that you can print up and post in the classroom as a reminder.  (Just register, which is free, to gain access.)

Creative Commons and Public Domain

When students want to do more than fair use allows — or if they just want to avoid any uncertainty — they can rely on Creative Commons and the Public Domain. I’ve mentioned this idea in the past when discussing how to create photo collections for students. There are a good number of resources for finding images and music with a license for reuse. 

In the video below, you can help students understand how to find media online that is free to use.

To help students better understand the concept of Creative Commons and Public Domain, Copyright & Creativity has lessons and videos to teach students about both concepts. This way, students can find works that are free to reuse however they like.

There are a lot of places kids can go to find media that they actually have permission to use. These curriculum resources from Copyright & Creativity help set a foundation to help students better understand this concept so that they can put their new knowledge into action. 

Teaching Students About Copyright

As I mentioned, Copyright & Creativity has a robust set of online curriculum, and they are all totally free. You’ll find resources to use across the grade levels. Here is an example of a High School lesson on this topic

Can students reuse the work of others in their own creations?

It’s titled “Using Copyrighted Works in Our Own Creations — Fair Use, Creative Commons, Permissions, and Public Domain.” In this lesson, students learn about:

  • Fair use, which allows them to reuse copyright-protected work in certain situations without permission
  • How to find creative works that are free to use with few or no restrictions — Creative Commons and the public domain

In addition to taking students through a lesson like the one linked and described above, you might want to share Independent Learning Videos with students. This collection provides students with access to videos to help answer questions they might have on this topic. Students could explore the resources on this site, or you might suggest one or two videos for students to watch independently and discuss in a small group.

It’s important to discuss these questions with students before they embark on creative educational projects — because how they incorporate other people’s work could end up affecting what they are allowed to do with their final product.  For example, it’s usually fine to rely on fair use for a project that will stay within the four walls of the classroom — but if a student may later want the flexibility to post the project broadly on social media, they might want to consider sticking to public domain and Creative Commons works.

Help your students become confident and ethical as creative digital citizens! You can teach students about fair use, Creative Commons, and the Public Domain using the free resources from Copyright & Creativity!

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Dr. Monica Burns is a former classroom teacher, Author, Speaker, and Curriculum & EdTech Consultant. Visit her site ClassTechTips.com for more ideas on how to become a tech-savvy teacher.

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