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Six Copyright Concepts Your K-12 Students Should Know

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We are reposting this from the Copyright: Creativity at Work blog. Author Nicole Lamberson hopes that you will share this with your students as they maneuver the world of Copyright in their daily lives.

Whether you’re teaching young students just starting out or preparing older students for life beyond high school, incorporating copyright concepts into your lesson plans can help engage a student’s creativity and foster an appreciation for the importance of protecting creative works. Students interact with copyright daily, often without realizing it. They draw a picture of their family or record themselves playing a familiar tune on their recorder. They perform a monologue from a well-known play or write a short story inspired by another work. They research a topic for a term paper or analyze a novel for a book report. At all ages, students are not only creating copyright-protected works, they are using the copyright-protected works of other authors along the way.

To get you started, here are six concepts that will help students better understand copyright.

Image of student surrounded by note pads, sticky notes and other study materials
Students become copyright owners as soon as they fix their work in a tangible format.

Everyone Is a Copyright Owner

Copyright covers creative works like books, movies, plays, music, artwork, sculptures, photographs, computer programs, and more. So, just about everyone—including students of all ages—is a copyright owner, even if they’ve never registered their works. In the United States, copyright protects a creative work from the moment the author fixes it in a tangible form of expression, meaning the work is written, recorded, or captured in some medium that can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time.

In addition to being fixed, a work must be original, meaning that it is an independently created work of human authorship that is also creative. But, one important distinction is that copyright only protects the expression of a work, not the underlying ideas. Two authors with the same idea can create two separate works, and, as long as they meet the other requirements, copyright will protect both.

Copyright Gives Owners Some Exclusive Rights over the Use of Their Work

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution saw copyright law as a vehicle to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts.” As part of this, copyright gives owners certain exclusive rights over a work’s use and commercialization. These include the rights to reproduce, distribute, create derivatives, publicly perform, and publicly display a work. Creators can also transfer these rights and permit others to use their works. As such, copyright owners can not only protect their works but also, in many cases, make a living from them. Understanding this can help students see the potential of their own works and respect the rights of other copyright owners.

Students playing with a variety of materials in the classroom.
Students of all ages can be copyright owners.

However, these rights don’t last forever. The Framers also ensured that copyright protection was for a limited time so that works could inspire the creation of new works, and the cycle would continue, further enriching the nation. For example, think of the many derivative works that have developed from the novels of Jane Austen, the plays of William Shakespeare, and the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, among others. Movies based on their works, such as Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Frozen wouldn’t exist without the public domain.

Copyright Registration Protects Works by Creators of All Ages

Though copyright protection is automatic, students may want to go one step further to enhance that protection by registering their work with the Copyright Office. While registration is not a requirement, it does provide several benefits: it allows owners to enforce their copyright in a U.S. work in court, and if registration is timely, it may allow them to claim statutory damages and attorneys’ fees. It also creates a public record of related facts, which helps those seeking to use a work.

Registration is available to creators of all ages. Perhaps your students want to submit a short story they wrote in class to a literary journal or turn it into a novel, or maybe they want to display their painting at an art fair. Even if your students don’t have something to register now, copyright law and registration are here to help protect them and their future creative works.

Copyright staff member at a computer working on a project.
The Copyright Office registers works from creators of all ages.

Everyone Is a Copyright User

While everyone is a copyright owner, it’s just as crucial to recognize that everyone is also a copyright user. Students use copyright-protected works daily. They’re using textbooks or multimedia materials for class, performing songs in a school band or chorus, or starring in the school play, to name a few. Outside of school, students are still using copyright-protected works in many ways—for example, when they post someone’s photo on social media, upload a video using someone else’s song, or download an album.

Knowing how to legally use another creator’s work is important. Users generally need permission before using a work, though other options might be available, including if the work is in the public domain or if the use falls under the exceptions and limitations found in the Copyright Act.

Learning About Fair Use Is Valuable

Older students may have encountered the concept of fair use when citing materials for class projects or reports, but they don’t always know the details of the legal doctrine or understand the difference between fair use and proper citation. With no hard-and-fast rules, it’s more than just thinking the use of someone else’s copyrighted work is fair or okay because others have used it. Instead, fair use is determined on a case-by-case basis and dependent on four factors:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, whether it’s being used for commercial or nonprofit educational purposes.
  2. The nature of the copyright-protected work—is it more factual or highly creative?
  3. The amount and significance of the portion used. It’s not as simple as using less than 10 percent; there is no precise formula to ensure that using a particular amount of a work will qualify.
  4. The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the protected work.
Students watching a puppet show in the Library's Young Readers Center.
Because students of all ages create and use copyright-protected works, including copyright in your lesson plans is valuable to all.

If fair use is applied correctly, it allows the use of a copyright-protected work without permission. However, students must be thoughtful and analyze if it really is fair use.

Copyright Is Important

Ultimately, students should recognize that copyright is essential. They might see copyright in a negative light, as something hindering their access to works online or the reason their social media post or video was taken down. But copyright is here to help “promote the progress of science and the useful arts”; it protects everyone, from well-known authors and musicians to independent photographers and first-time songwriters to the students creating their own copyright-protected works. And it provides carefully considered exceptions and limitations so those works can be used by students in class and beyond.

From the beginning of school, students are engaging their creativity through all subjects, so it’s never too early to start teaching copyright concepts. Understanding copyright helps students see the value in their creative works and in the works of others, as well as ensure they are using them in a fair and legal way.

Copyright Office Resources to Get You Started

  • Engage Your Creativity webpage
    • Provides a variety of introductory resources—including Circulars, handouts, and videos—to help your students engage their creativity
  • Learning Engine video series
    • Provides short, fun, and informative videos on basic copyright concepts.
  • Copyright Office Circulars
    • Provides authoritative information to general audiences on topics related to the fundamental concepts of copyright law and the policies and procedures of the Copyright Office.


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