Hiding the Law

If you’re a teacher, you need to understand the basics of copyright and fair use. Actually, that’s probably true of any adult in the US but especially teachers since we are responsible for helping our students understand the concepts, the law, and their rights under it. Or at least we should be responible.

This idea comes to mind because last week the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and other organizations celebrated Copyright Week with a series of interesting posts about the need for intellectual property policies and laws that promote creativity and innovation. Rather than heavy handed attempts to restrict access to and use of information.

Such as the ongoing attempts by industry associations to use copyright law to “interfere with transparency and open access to the law itself”, by claiming ownership of “laws that began as private standards but are later incorporated into federal and state regulations”. Six of these associations are suing Public Resource, a small non-profit organization that has been posting the regulations online for anyone to use, free of charge.

And even the business of education is involved.

In 2014, three more SDOs [standards development organizations] sued Public Resource over a standard for designing tests. That standard is part of the U.S. Department of Education’s rules for handing out billions of dollars in financial aid for students, yet the groups that published it make it hard to find and buy, in order to boost sales of a new edition. It’s not available online anywhere right now, so finding out what the law is means tracking down an increasingly rare used copy.

Reminds me a little of that classic work of educational obfuscation, Double Secret Probation. :-)

What You Don’t Know, Can Hurt You

You’ve probably never heard of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – and that’s by design. TPP is “is a secretive, multi-national trade agreement that threatens to extend restrictive intellectual property (IP) laws across the globe and rewrite international rules on its enforcement.”

The governments involved, and the hundreds of corporations who are helping to write the provisions, want us to know as little as possible before it becomes law.

Fortunately, enough information about the contents has leaked to offer a good, if very chilling, picture of how the package “would have extensive negative ramifications for users’ freedom of speech, right to privacy and due process, and hinder peoples’ abilities to innovate.”

Because supporters of TPP are worried about the backlash that would result if more people had a good look at the provisions, they are pushing Congress to pass a “fast track” bill for this and similar trade agreements.

If passed, the “Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act” would give over to the executive branch much of the exclusive constitutional authority over trade policy that Congress is supposed to exercise. Sponsors of the bill claim that this process “provides greater transparency and gives Congress greater oversight of the Administration’s trade negotiations.” But in fact, fast track does precisely the opposite, ensuring that there’s even less transparency and less democratic oversight over trade negotiations, while making it easier for Big Content to impose its wish list of draconian copyright provisions on the US and its trading partners through secretive trade pacts.

Read the facts that are known about TPP and the efforts to force it’s provisions into American law. Then join the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups in demanding that Congress “stand up for your digital rights and preserve our constitutional checks and balances in government.”

Copyright Propaganda

Almost since the first digital file was posted on the web, lobbyists for the big copyright holders, like the RIAA, have been working to slow down illegal copying of media. Between DRM, lots of lawsuits, and the buying of Congress critters, their clients are still watching their old business models (primarily one of restricting access to their products) slip away.

Now they’re trying a more subtle approach: education, in the form of “thinly disguised corporate propaganda” for elementary-level kids.

In an anti-piracy curriculum to be tested in California schools later this year, teachers will present students with scenarios conveying the message that it is never appropriate to reuse copyrighted materials. Never! Older kids are told it’s always considered stealing while for 1st graders copying is just plain “mean”.

But what about fair use, the concept in copyright law that under certain circumstances, it is completely appropriate to use part of a copyrighted work? And Creative Commons, under which content creators openly license the use of their creations?

According to Marsali Hancock, president of the The Internet Keep Safe Coalition, one of the designers of this program, “fair use is not a part of the teaching material because K-6 graders don’t have the ability to grasp it.” Their curriculum does believe that second graders are old enough to understand the concept of marketing their photographs online.

The introduction to Creative Commons is equally simplistic and carrying a corporate bias.

The fifth-grade lesson introduces the Creative Commons license, in which rights holders grant limited permission on re-use. But even in explaining the Creative Commons, the lesson says that it’s illegal to make any copies of copyrighted works. That’s a message that essentially says it’s even unlawful to rip CDs to your iPod.

“If a song or movie is copyrighted, you can’t copy it, download it, or use it in your own work without permission,” according to the fifth-grade worksheet. “However, Creative Commons allows artists to tell users how and if their work can be used by others. For example, if a musician is okay with their music being downloaded for free – they will offer it on their website as a ‘Free download’. An artist can also let you know how you can use their work by using a Creative Commons license.”

The vice president of the California School Library Association, the organization that co-produce the material says “We’ve got some editing to do.”, which, based only on what’s presented in this story, is an understatement.

What all the groups involved with “Be a Creator” (yes, that’s the proposed title) don’t appear to remember is that this kind of heavy handed, one-sided approach to “educating” students didn’t work in the 90’s when the Software Publishers Association used story and song to preach “Don’t Copy That Floppy“. I suspect this effort will fall flat with it’s target audience as well.

Kids have grown up sharing and repurposing almost anything in digital form and some slick corporate propaganda won’t change that. Which means we not only need to help our students understand copyright law but also model for them how to responsibly exercise their fair use rights within those laws.

On the other side of things, the copyright industry needs to acknowledge that fair use is real and come to terms with the idea that bits of their content are going to be reused, remixed, and shared. It may not fit with their traditional business model but, in the long run, that process is good for both the people who create media and the culture at large.

Insanely Inadequate

David Weinberger on copyright in 2012.

I think our current copyright system is insanely inadequate for the new ecology, and that it has the opposite effect that its best-spirited defenders want it to have: the current copyright laws (and mindset) are impeding the greatest cultural flowering in our history, and if those copyright laws are taken to their proposed maximum, they will kill culture dead.

He goes on to discuss how he and the musician whose post inspired his comments both depend on copyright to make a living (at least part of it) but still believe the system is broken.

Slightly off the topic of our screwed up intellectual property system, I’m in the middle of reading Weinberger’s new book Too Big to Know and highly recommend it. It’s an interesting read about how information is moving beyond an expert-driven system to a world of knowledge where networks are the experts. For those of us in education, his ideas have many implications.

Tales of True Crime

I committed a crime today.

I copied a program from my DVR to a DVD. Later I’ll rip the video and put it on my hard drive. Would that be two offenses or just an extension of the first?

Anyway, I’m sure many people would say that what I’ve done is not an illegal act. After all, the copy is for my personal use and I have no intention of selling or giving the recording to anyone. Wasn’t that issue settled by the courts decades ago?

Besides, in my defense, I did try to buy the show. I checked the store section of the network’s web site, as well as Amazon, iTunes and a variety of other outlets for this kind of material.

I even wrote the network, asking if they were planning on offering the program in the future. The only response was a form message thanking me for my interest in their products and saying the title “was not on our release schedule”.

Although I certainly don’t believe what I’ve done is a crime, I suspect the MPAA (and maybe the copyright owners) would disagree with my logic. Those lobbying groups for the video and music industries are working hard to stop anyone from using media in any way except the way they prescribe. Want that disk on your iPad? Pay us again.

However, beyond all that, my flirting with criminal activity is one small example of how the content owners have caused many of their own problems in the digital age, screaming to anyone who will listen (usually the people they’ve bribed) about the billions they’re losing from piracy.*

In an age when many networks are promoting the digital version during the program (“Download tonight’s episode on iTunes!”), and digital distribution costs a fraction of what’s being charged, it’s hard to understand why this particular program isn’t available, now weeks after it’s initial broadcast.

Now, I’m not one of those who feels a “smug sense of entitlement” to illegally download anything ever produced. Like the vast majority of consumers, I’m only asking for access to media when and where I want for a fair price.

In many ways, the convoluted and antiquated business models of the media distributors are cultivating the piracy proclivity in their customers.


*A claim that’s been challenged multiple times, including this good analysis.