Do the (Copy)right Thing: Educators' Lack of Attention to Intellectual Property Law Places Their Schools in Legal Jeopardy-And Sends a Terrible Message to Students

Article excerpt

"HOW MANY do you want to know about?"

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Having been prompted for an anecdote that demonstrates the lack of regard school districts have for complying with copyright law, Carol Simpson makes it clear that she has an abundant sample size to choose from. "I collect copyright horror stories," she says.

She collects and stores them in a database for all the K-12 world to view on her website, www.carolsimpson.com.

A former school librarian and classroom teacher, now an associate professor at the University of North Texas School of Library and Information Sciences, and the author of a series of books on copyright issues, Simpson launches into a best-of review of K-12 copyright transgressions:

"I know of cases that range from multiple photocopying to computer software piracy--installing on many machines when you have a license for only one. I know a district where two pages were copied from a professional book and included in a district curriculum guide. The author found out about it and sued. The district settled out of court for $40,000. I know districts sued by Disney for using homemade copies of cartoon characters. A school district in Texas purchased a single copy of a high-stakes assessment workbook for each grade level, then sent the copies to the district print shop. The print shop duplicated a copy for each student in the district. The copyright owner found out, and sued the district, alleging $7 million in damages."

She says with resignation, "It's a long list."

Simpson is perhaps the most vocal among the too-few voices trying to engage administrators and classroom teachers to learn about, respect, and adhere to copyright law. To the great frustration of Simpson and other librarians, who tend to be the only copyright sticklers in K-12, it's no easy task, because of the many more pressing matters on the plates of school principals. Says Ruth Dukelow, associate director of the Michigan Library Consortium (www.mlcnet.org) and author of The Library Copyright Guide (AECT, 1992), "Copyright is just not on the administration's radar."

Without a mandate from the district or a push from principals, teachers remain inattentive to and unschooled in copyright law as well, exposing their districts to litigation and modeling unlawful behavior for their students. "A lot of teachers don't have much background at all related to copyright," says Evelyn Wecker Freeman, information media consultant for Oakland Schools in Waterford, MI. "It's not something I learned at school either."

Some teachers, Freeman says, think that if published material, whether software, books, or music, is intended for educational purposes, they have free rein, while others believe that if something is freely available on the internet, nobody owns it. Both are false, potentially dangerous notions.

"It seems that it is more a lack of awareness than avoidance that keeps [copyright] from being a priority," says Maria Kardick, librarian at Spring-Ford Eighth-Grade Center in Royersford, PA. "Educators feel no one will sue them because they work for a school and they are exempt."

It's that widespread assumption that copyright simply doesn't apply to education that can, and has, gotten districts into trouble. The "fair use" provision of the US Copyright Act does exempt schools from some copyright infringement restrictions, but sets conditions on what constitutes fair use. But often, the only instruction in copyright law teachers receive comes from a sign hung over the school's copy machine. Simpson marvels that in school-law class, which she says is generally taken by school administrators and covers the various statutes and case law related to education, copyright isn't even mentioned. The first time that principals become aware of copyright law, she says, may be from a cease-and-desist order. Simpson says she doesn't know any district in the state of Texas that hasn't been hit with copyright infringement--but the issues are settled out of court and there aren't public records of them or subsequent case law to study. …