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.