By Evan Brown
Since the spread of high-speed data connections and the Napster revolution in the late 1990s, cultural respect for copyright has seemingly diminished (if, in fact, it ever really existed at all). A new campaign by content industry groups seeks to change this by inculcating their version of copyright law in American kids as early as possible. But is their version the one kids should learn?
The Internet Keep Safe Coalition and the Center for Copyright Information, organizations financed by the major players in the entertainment and telecommunications industries (i.e., the industries most threatened by digital piracy), are working on a new set of lessons for elementary school students. The California School Library Association plans to use the lessons as part of its digital literacy curriculum in the near future. These lessons place students in the position of content creators and showcase the ways in which others can steal their potential profits by copying or reusing their works. They seek to combat piracy by showing students just how wrong it is to use other people’s things, even when those things are creative expressions meant specifically to be, well, expressed. The lessons convey the message that you simply cannot use somebody else’s creative content without permission. As the lesson for first graders puts it, “[w]hen we create something, we own it, and we get to decide if we want to share it. . . . We also get to decide HOW it will be shared and used.”
Most younger people today, and probably a good number of older people, hold paradoxical views about copyright. On one hand, everyone appreciates the creativity that copyright, at least arguably, incentivizes. On the other hand, most people just want access to creative content, and for some today that means voyaging into the fetid undergrowth of the Internet, where torrent and file hosting sites are to music and movies what Willy Wonka’s factory was to chocolate. This has led to a rise in piracy via the Internet and peer-to-peer platforms as well as a growing sense of entitlement to the creative works of others. But it has also led to an explosion of arguably transformational, and inarguably influential, works like mashup songs and Tumblr memes—the types of creative content that best distinguish contemporary content creation from that of the recent past.
As industry groups often fail to see, copyright law isn’t all about piracy. And using somebody else’s content isn’t necessarily piracy. As any creator knows, every work you make builds on works that other people made. And with the near-infinite access afforded by today’s distribution technologies, access to the works other people have made is at an all-time high. In their zeal to protect the profits of industries built on exploiting copyright, the content industry groups overlook this element entirely. Copyright doctrines absent from the lesson plans, like fair use and scenes-a-faire, have long recognized the basic fact belied by the new industry campaign: not all unpermitted uses are wrong. In fact, some—like uses necessary for parody and criticism—are hallmarks of a free society.
Yet instead of seeking to promote responsible creative uses, entertainment industry groups have long had the kind of tunnel vision that only money can buy. They have painted a binary picture in which you either pay for your content and use it how they say you can use it, or you are a thief. You may remember those insufferably preachy commercials that would play before movie previews in theaters, vilifying online infringers as thieves. Or perhaps you recall the ads blaming downloaders for firing poor movie set laborers. But ask yourself whether a person making an unauthorized mashup of some movies has even indirectly taken food off of a Hollywood table. After all, a court analyzing fair use court would ask that very question (they’d just call it “market impact”). But the industry “educational” campaign does not ask that question. It simply says that you always need permission to use other people’s content, period.
Having struck out in its attempts to combat piracy through mass lawsuits, the content industry is now turning to the classroom. But this is about more than just stopping piracy. They want this generation to grow up thinking in their binary terms. They want kids to think that you can’t use something somebody else made unless they give you permission. They just want to extract their fees, but if their vision takes hold it could hamper creative reuse and dampen vital expression. And let’s not forget—because they certainly haven’t—that the second graders of today are the judges and legislators of tomorrow.