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Creative Commons and Copyleft

Written by Joseph Conroy
October 29, 2010

To be perfectly honest, my preconceived notions about copyright were misinformed and incomplete at best. In my mind, the familiar WARNING: For private use only. Federal law provides severe civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized reproduction, distribution or exhibition of copyrighted motion pictures and video formats that precedes movies applied to all copyrighted works. This belief was reinforced by the media’s coverage of the Napster trial and other forms of digital piracy.

The two extremes of over-compliance and outright disregard for federal law appeared irreconcilable, and navigating between them only complicated my classroom practices. On one hand, I gravely frown upon my students copying “intellectual property” through plagiarism or sloppy citations. On the other hand, hadn’t I just guided my students to blatantly use digital media without any consideration of the author’s copyright? This hypocritical double-standard did not sit well with me. I needed to find a more balanced approach.

On one side of the spectrum, a growing number of individuals believe information should be openly available to copy, distribute, and modify despite copyright status, a position known as the copyleft. The growing copyleft movement provides a legal solution that enables authors a balance between copyright and public domain. For example, Creative Commons offers a wide range of tools to legally license intellectual property to be freely distributed, reproduced, and modified. Social media sites like Flickr take full advantage of Creative Commons licensing. Other websites like Pics 4 Learning offer copyright-friendly media and gather collections of royalty-free media available to the public domain, such as the Public Domain Database.

These resources are part of an effective and efficient approach to help navigate the complexities of copyright. I was relieved to know that my students could graze the commons of copyright-friendly and public domain media. Every now and again, my students wandered outside the pastures of public media, which prompted me to address the topic more directly. I still needed to know how to guide students who wanted to incorporate copyrighted material into their school projects.

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