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Last Updated: Jan 23rd, 2011 - 06:37:27 

Rubrics & Guidelines  

Teach Respect for Copyright in Your Classroom
By Cynthia Kirkeby
Apr 2, 2006, 08:10 PST

Infringing Visual and Audio Works is as Serious as Plagiarizing Written Works.

As a college student, years ago, I was appalled when my professors turned a blind eye to projects that were turned in using copyrighted materials. When I brought up my concerns, I was frequently told that it was just a student project, or just a comp, and therefore didn’t matter. A few instructors ran their classes like a commercial studio, and in those classes if you infringed on someone’s copyright, you failed the assignment. It is for those instructors that I have enormous respect to this day. With just a little effort instructors can teach their students good copyright practices and avoid problems down the line.

Image available from
My daughter, Nora, just graduated from The Orange County High School of the Arts. While she was in the Visual Arts program, I was once again confronted with students who created projects that were blatant infringements of someone else’s work. I originally thought that I would drive my daughter crazy with the restrictions I placed on how she could use source materials in her projects, but she never protested once. She knew that a project that infringed on someone else’s work couldn’t be entered in competitions or festivals, or sold.

Why put enormous amounts of time and energy into creating something that can never be showcased or sold? It’s just as easy to respect copyright regulations, and create something uniquely yours. Now, you have something of value and you own the copyright to that work free and clear.

One of the biggest concerns related to students ignoring proper copyright practices in the classroom is that they never learn what they can or cannot do in the “real world.” Recently on the TV program “Project Runway,” Marla, one of the contestants, overtly copied a Chloé dress during the competition. Although Nicky Hilton pointed out that it was a knock off during the judging, my daughter and I were appalled when the contestant wasn’t kicked out of the competition for blatant infringement! In the real world, copyright infringement in the fashion world (as well as the music and design industry) is now being pursued successfully in the courts, oftentimes costing the infringing parties hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in penalties and legal costs.

Image available from
My son, David, also attends OCHSCA in the Film and TV department. The director of his program has done some basic copyright education with the students. Many of their early film projects actually prohibited the use of music to eliminate one of the primary infringement concerns in the film industry - the unauthorized use of copyrighted music.

Recently, David decided he would like to use a particular song in his next film project. I suggested that he look up the band online and ask their permission. He hunted around a little and found the band had a page on He sent them a formal request to use the song by email, and was a little shocked when he actually heard back from them. They said that he was welcome to use the music. Then their manager contacted him about the specifics, so that he could send my son an official contract stating that the use in his project was authorized. He was thrilled. Now he could use the song in his film, and with the authorization in hand, he could submit it to film festivals without being turned away.

With very little effort, teachers can help to encourage good standards in their classrooms. Today there are Internet resources that make it much easier to find materials that are legal to use.

The Creative Commons is a wonderful project that is gathering momentum throughout the Internet. Through the Creative Commons you can find materials that have been put into the public domain, approved for educational use, or otherwise permissioned in whole or in part. More and more organizations are linking their materials into the Creative Commons, and Google and Yahoo even have special searches that look for materials on the web marked by the Creative Commons icons. What can be found here? Almost everything. Photos, illustrations, text, even some video are available.

Visual artists should also be aware of some of the places to find public domain or royalty free images. The resources available are numerous and diverse. Over the past 5 years I have found hundreds of resources for copyright-free images. Examples of copyright-free photos are the images available from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Each of these military branches maintains a photo repository, and all of the images are in the public domain. There are also hundreds of royalty free images available; many from free collections or through inexpensive subscriptions to services such as or (both of which we use extensively on ClassBrain).

Another great resource, especially for film students, is the Moving Image Archive, which houses Open Source Movies, containing more than 17,000 movies that have been placed into the public domain. These films can be used as is, excerpted, or altered and incorporated into new projects.

With all of the resources available to students today, there is no excuse for allowing students to infringe on copyrighted works. There are strict rules prohibiting the infringement of written works, and there should also be strict rules in place regarding students plagiarizing visual and audio works as well.

Things teachers can do to help their students avoid infringement in the classroom:

  1. Film teachers should make sure that any music that is used by their students is properly permissioned. Many times all it takes to receive permission is a short email to the band outlining the intended use. An alternative to requesting permission is to use music that has been permissioned in advance (see information on the Creative Commons above).
  2. Design instructors should require that students identify the source of any photos used in their projects. The photos should either be original works, photos in the public domain, or royalty free photos.
  3. Art teachers should require students to bring in any photos or illustrations used as reference materials in art projects. Creating an illustration straight from a copyrighted photo is considered a derivative work, and is illegal under copyright law.
  4. Encourage students to make a collage of various images to use as their source material, this helps students get away from the idea of copying and move towards the idea of creating.
  5. Penalties for infringing or plagiarizing visual and audio works should be as severe as those for plagiarizing written works.

With a little bit of help, instructors at all levels can help students learn good design practices and avoid the pitfalls and penalties of copyright infringement.

© Copyright 2006 by

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