National Writing Project

Book Review: Copyright Clarity: How Fair Use Supports Digital Learning

Date: May 19, 2011

Summary: Renee Hobbs of Temple University's Media Education Lab identifies copyright issues that will help students use sources in transformative, creative, and legal ways.


Ironically, the title of Renee Hobbs's most recent book, Copyright Clarity, is not what readers will find within its pages. And that's a good thing for those interested in its subtitle: How Fair Use Supports Digital Learning.

As a technology-integration coach in K-12 schools, I have found that "copyfright," to borrow a term from Copyright Clarity's forward, is second only to Internet safety in hampering teachers' use of the World Wide Web and students' publishing with multimedia.

As a rule, educators look for a silver bullet—a set of rules that definitively and quickly distinguish what materials can be used, to what extent, and in which situations. Consequently, we gravitate toward charts and graphs that specify numbers of words and seconds of music.

However, as Hobbs explains, not only are these cheat sheets not the law, they also pose the very real danger of diminishing our rights as citizens and educators. Hobbs offers no shortcuts to copyright issues because there aren't any. What she does promise is that her book "will forever change the way you think about copyright." And indeed, Copyright Clarity is all about thinking, not reacting.

Crippling Copyright Mind-sets

At the outset, Hobbs helps teachers see that they are not alone by presenting three profiles of educators facing familiar copyright questions.

First, there are those who see no evil, or "believe they may use any copyrighted materials for any purpose, as long as they identify the source material." Second, there are those who hyper-comply, or resist using—or allowing students to use—any materials at any time, for any purpose. Finally, there are those who simply close the door, or use—and allow students to use—copyrighted materials in their classrooms but avoid publishing, even to closed networks within the school community.

Hobbs challenges these crippling mind-sets by enabling a fundamental shift in her readers' attitude toward copyright. She makes it clear that the original intent of copyright protection, as embodied in the U.S. Constitution and the Copyright Act of 1976, is not to protect the right of individuals to make money from what they create.

Copyright as a Promoter of Creativity

Rather, it is to provide an environment in which creativity itself (the spread of knowledge and innovation) is supported for the good of our society. In other words, fair use of copyrighted material is allowed when the social benefit of that use outweighs the cost to the copyright holder.

Hobbs puts into perspective the moneyed interests that have hidden fair use behind a fear of copyright law, and she highlights resources for combating these interests, including the Center for Social Media at the American University's School of Communication and the Media Education Lab at Temple University's School of Communications and Theater, where Hobbs is a professor.

Most important, Hobbs provides the kind of education on fair use that enables teachers and students to fight for the right to use copyrighted materials. In the 21st century, she points out, copyright matters to everyone, including students who can now produce and publish text for a worldwide audience via the Web.

Instead of hiding our students' work, we need to open the classroom door.

Students need to understand the difference between inappropriate copying and the kind of creativity that builds new material out of old. Now more than ever, instead of hiding our students' work, we need to open the classroom door.

Under copyright law, the key to distinguishing copying from creativity and to understanding fair use is the "idea of transformativeness—that is, has the user added value or repurposed the work?"

Teaching About Copyright

Hobbs includes an example of students creating slide presentations to compare the copyrighted work of various photographers. In this instance, she carefully explains the four-factor test —a reasoning process laid out in the Copyright Act of 1976 that can be used to answer two essential questions:

  • Did the use of copyrighted material transform the material?
  • Was the material taken appropriate in kind and amount?

Later, Hobbs introduces a second example based on two classroom scenarios, one of which is clear-cut while the other is clearly debatable. She asks the reader to make a determination: is this a fair use of copyrighted material? In this way, Hobbs models the same rationale she advocates both for professional development and the classroom.

"Resist the tendency to answer with your own determination of fair use," she writes. "When you offer the 'answer,' it doesn't promote critical thinking...Encourage the questioner to answer his or her own question by using reasoning and judgment to make a fair-use determination."

Encouraging students to ask "Is my work transformative?" is the progressive alternative to telling them "No, you can't use that." This is the new mind-set that changes copyright as a gatekeeper blocking the fair use of copyrighted materials into a gateway leading to works that easily satisfy fair use because they extend existing work in thoughtful and original ways. This is what scholars do, and we can encourage our students to do the same.

By promoting fair-use determination as a reasoning process, Hobbs advances a new profile of educators who appreciate their role and that of their students in the changing landscape of copyright in our culture.

"[These educators] want students to fully participate in their society, taking on the challenges of becoming citizens and not just spectators," she writes. "Such work is not only legal ... it is at the heart of what copyright law is designed to protect: critical thinking, creative expression, and the spread of knowledge."

In the end, Copyright Clarity is not about oversimplifying this complex topic. It's about clarifying fair use to support meaningful learning. In that sense, as Hobbs promises, her book is not one of those that "leaves you feeling more confused after reading [it] than when you started." Instead, it leaves you energized for writing and the teaching of writing in our digital age.

About the Author Kenneth Martin is a teacher-consultant with the University of Maine Writing Project.

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