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Education International

Keep copyright out of the classroom

published 26 September 2016 updated 26 September 2016
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Copyright is commonly seen as a matter of creators only: musicians, writers and painters. Currently, it is fashionable also to include creative industries: architects, fashion designers or cooks. But we tend to forget that copyright is a legal system that also applies to education - to millions of teachers and educators, and a multitude of learners. We don't realise that a popular textbook is used on par with blockbuster movies or hit singles.

Invisible but present in the classroom

Copyright applies to a wide scope of educational resources that can be used in any way for educational purposes. Copyright therefore defines ways in which textbooks are procured, additional materials are photocopied, or films are shown during lessons. So how come there is little debate about copyright in the educational sector?

Most obviously, copyright is a difficult legal system and educational institutions are simply not prepared to cope with this. But difficult doesn’t mean impossible to explain - in Australia the Smartcopying site is a public portal that provides copyright guideline for education.

How to drive copyright out of the classroom

Copyright generally guarantees that all rights are reserved and a permission needs to be obtained from the rights owner - usually in the shape of a paid-for license. To make use of copyrighted materials free from that protection whenever public interest is considered, copyright traditionally allows exceptions from that general rule. These exceptions provide a safe space to use resources, and in particular to support public interest - they apply to education, cultural institutions or research activities.

A good exception covering all educational uses means that an educator does not need to worry about copyright - it is effectively "kept out of the classroom". Sometimes these exceptions include a payment scheme, but there is also a strong tradition of free use of content for non-commercial educational purposes.

Technology changes everything, but the law

For a long time, copyright remained invisible because of the available technology. In a pre-internet world, both the range of resources that could be used, and sources from which they could be obtained, was limited. There were textbooks (purchased in bulk through governmental schemes or individually by parents), and a limited range of additional resources: photocopied handouts, films on video tapes, etc.

Once the internet became popular and provided a cheap and efficient channel for providing educators with any type of content imaginable, everything has changed. The key question is whether copyright law has been adapted as well, and is it now fit to support education in the digital era?

In Poland, teachers sharing students' presentations online have been sued by photographers for the use of images, because of lack of proper quotation. A small mistake, which in several cases have cost teachers and schools disproportionately high fines. In many countries , years of bad legislation have created a patchwork of rules that give teachers no clarity, at what point they start breaking rules.

When policy making is slow, the market responds quickly

For the educational system, changes triggered by technology spell cost. While legislation changes slowly, companies are quick to offer paid licensing options. These can even apply to uses that are covered by the exception - administrators who are unaware of rights given to educators by law pay for uses that could be freely made. Lobbyists representing publishers like to present the example of Scandinavian countries, where so called Extended Copyright Licensing (ECL) schemes create a system where each educational use is paid for, based on a very broad general license. But they tend to ignore the fact that across the world most educational systems are not as rich as those in Northern Europe.

It is also worth noting, that in many countries a limited copyright exception does not cover education beyond the formal education system. Left out are educational efforts done by libraries and museums, all types of educational associations and organisations, and alternative education like homeschooling. In these cases, almost any use of content will probably trigger either a payment or a court case.

We are facing the risk of a world in which a paid license, and not freedom to use content within the scope of an exception, is the norm in schools. In Europe, a new law has been recently proposed, based on which no exception will be given for using a work, if a license is available. Now it is the time to realise the risks that teachers and schools will face - a copyright that until now was largely invisible can soon become a serious burden. The educational sector needs to mobilise, and defend the principle that "copyright is kept out of education" so educators working in the public interest enjoy the freedom of using content, even if it is copyrighted.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.