Copyright in the digital age

As a young history teacher I was guilty of hoarding my stuff. Now that I’m older I consider it a terrible waste. I remember being particularly proud of a “Middle East Conflict” worksheet that contained numerous pieces of historical evidence: political cartoons, quotes from politicians of the time, diary entries, lyrics from a Palestinian song and some photos from a feature film.

These were accompanied by what I believed were a set of insightful questions aimed at encouraging the learners to sift through the evidence for historical truths. The sad thing was only my few classes ever benefited from my little masterpiece.

I believe this hoarding mentality is widespread and has developed in part as a result of our copyright laws. In an effort to protect “intellectual capital” copyright laws have developed a “restrictive” framework that places control of how our work is used squarely in our own hands.

Today you don’t even have to register your work for it to be copyrighted. By law the ubiquitous © symbol is assigned to everything unique you create, be that a worksheet, lesson plan, blog entry or forum comment.

Knowing this – and to try to wrest control of educational material – some schools make teachers sign a statement in their employment contract that says anything created during the course of their employment belongs to the institution.


Many teachers believe that their materials will become sources in a textbook which, when published, will provide them with royalties. It is for this reason that many teachers are reluctant to share their materials. But, the reality is that very few of us have work that is selected for publishing and most of us do not derive any commercial benefit from our work. I would, therefore, like to suggest a copyright middle path where we can all derive some benefit from our creativity: the Creative Commons copyright system. (http://za.creativecommons.org)

Someone who has already embraced this middle path is United States President Barack Obama. Have you been to his Flickr page (http://flickr.com/photos/barackobamadotcom/)?

While his snapshots taken during his election campaign are not going to win any photographic competitions, what is significant is the way he has copyrighted the pictures. Instead of employing Full Copyright: All Rights Reserved, synonymous with the © symbol, he uses the Creative Commons (CC) system in which he has reserved some of his copyrights.

This means his photos can be used by others as long as they respect the three rights he has reserved: attribution, non-commercial and share-alike. According to Creative Common licensing, you can copy, distribute and transmit his photos. You are also allowed to “remix” or adapt the photos to your own use. (This is great news for teachers as they can adapt them to suit their worksheet or test/exam paper needs.)

However, they have to identify the author/photographer (attribution) whenever they distribute the photo; they may not make any cash out of the distribution of the pictures (non-commercial); and whatever derivatives they create from these photos have to be copyrighted in the same way the original photos were copyrighted (share-alike).

There is a fourth CC copyright that the president decided against using: “no derivatives”. It is possible to reserve this fourth right. If invoked it means that users of the material may not change it in any way. The original may be used by others, but not manipulated from its original state. From a teacher’s point of view invoking this right would be most disadvantageous. For example, imagine an exam copyrighted in this way. It would mean that the exam would have to be used in its entirety.

But teachers might want to delete questions that are not relevant to the curriculum, add in new questions and perhaps change the mark allocation. They cannot do that if the material carries the “No Derivatives” copyright.

So let’s have a think about how CC affects teachers. Imagine a middle road where we could reserve some of our copyrights and also encourage a wider distribution of the materials we create? “Attribution/share-alike”, for example, would allow us to become known as the creators of an evidence worksheet and have that locked into any variations of that worksheet in the future. In that way our work would garner recognition, but also help address the dearth of materials in some of our schools. Rather than squirrel away our best work, we could find it a wider audience.

Want to use and share materials in this way? Go to Thutong and search for and upload educational materials copyrighted with Creative Commons licensing.

Andrew Moore is a former teacher. He has a MEd in computer-assisted education. He works for Neil Butcher and Associates, an education technology consulting company

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