C is for Copyright

MIT’s conference last week on Scratch (an innovative programming tool for kids developed at MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Project) seemed a whirlwind kind of event. Educators and technologists sprinted around the Media Lab, academics and school teachers discussed such juicy topics as digital literacy and copyright, and attractive swag (blue messenger bags with the friendly Scratch cat on them) abounded. I attended Sharing Issues: Intellectual Property and Scratch, a session featuring presentations by Berkman fellow Wendy Seltzer, Arizona lawyer Dan Pote, and Sociable Media Group director Judith Donath.

The issue up for discussion was this: according to the Scratch terms of use, all projects put online are licensed automatically with a Creative Commons license. This allows other users to take projects freely and distribute them or change them, so long as they give the original creator credit. Many users do not give each other credit, however, while others attempt to prevent re-use of their code by including the phrase “all rights reserved” in their projects. The speakers at the panel were asked how best to educate Scratch users about the intellectual property rules governing their work.

Each speaker took a different tack. Donath and Pote both used young peoples’ perspectives as a jumping off point – whether discussing why some kids like to copy and others don’t or showcasing how a user interacts with Scratch itself (I won’t get into their presentations here, though both were excellent). Seltzer’s presentation focused on intellectual property law itself – she gave the audience a crash-course in copyright, summing up its roots in the Constitution, its limitations, and the concept of fair use all in a few minutes.

The fact that Seltzer’s bit consisted largely of explanations of copyright highlights the reality that before educators can teach kids about IP issues, adults at large need to actually understand it. Seltzer does a fine job of explaining copyright – if she chose jet around the country giving basic lectures on intellectual property, we’d all benefit immensely. It doesn’t seem she’ll be free for a national tour anytime soon, however. What then?

In an age where everything is replicable and 64% of online youth 12-17 create Internet content, an understanding of copyright law is more necessary than ever before,. Intellectual property, however, is not a topic consistently taught in schools and not something that all adults understand or agree about. In previous eras, IP concerns were largely the domain of professional content creators, such as filmmakers trying to get the rights to a piece of music or famous figures looking to control use of their speeches. Now, though, being a good citizen (and avoiding an RIAA lawsuit) requires basic knowledge of these rules. In attempting to “update” their curricula for a new generation of students, educators have incorporated new media (such as the online classroom tool blackboard) into the classroom. If they really want to stay apace of digital trends, they’ll need to update what they teach as well, and many may need to get caught up on IP issues.

A quick class trip to scratch.mit.edu might help.

Nikki Leon