December 5, 2020

Copyright Education: Harder Than It Looks

This afternoon I’m going to lead a discussion among twenty-five bright Princeton students, about the basics of copyright. Why do we have copyright? Why does it cover expression and not ideas? Why fair use? The answers are subtle, but I hope to guide the discussion toward finding them.

I can say for sure that a flat “downloading = shoplifting” argument would be torn to shreds in minutes. This equation seems wrong to most people, and it is wrong. Copyrights differ from traditional property in important ways. That doesn’t mean that copyright isn’t justified, but it does mean that the justification for copyright doesn’t follow from the justification for ordinary property. It will take a room full of college students a while to sort through all of this.

Let’s face it, this is challenging material, even for smart, motivated twenty-year-olds.

Meanwhile, JD Lasica notes that in fourth-grade classrooms, the BSA’s anticopying ferret (who seems, amusingly, to have been copied himself) will try to explain the same concepts to nine-year-olds. Cory Doctorow observes that this is crazy. Telling nine-year-olds that they have to understand copyright before they can use the Internet is like telling them that they have to understand employment taxes before they can run a lemonade stand.

I pity the fourth-grade teacher who, having read the BSA’s Teacher’s Guide, has to explain exactly what it is that is being stolen when a kid copies an image from the Barbie website to use as a placemat at dinner. If I were that teacher, I would prefer simpler questions like “Why are people mean to each other?” and “How did the universe start?”

Comments

  1. “Telling nine-year-olds that they have to understand copyright before they can use the Internet is like telling them that they have to understand employment taxes before they can run a lemonade stand.”

    Actually, the analogy that popped into my head was like having to understand Social Security employer tax portion and estimated tax witholding for contractors, before you can hire a nanny for your kid – which has tripped up people, against a strong social sense that it really shouldn’t.

  2. “I can say for sure that a flat “downloading = shoplifting” argument would be torn to shreds in minutes. This equation seems wrong to most people, and it is wrong. Copyrights differ from traditional property in important ways. That doesn’t mean that copyright isn’t justified, but it does mean that the justification for copyright doesn’t follow from the justification for ordinary property. It will take a room full of college students a while to sort through all of this.”

    Well, let’s see — as a graduate with degrees in computers and mathematics, I shall try to “sort through” it. When you download a file, the store doesn’t have one less CD, but if you shoplift it does — and it paid for that CD, but won’t get paid for it. So downloading is more like borrowing the CD, making a copy, and returning the original.

    This doesn’t affect the store’s or anyone else’s bottom line, except, well, lots of free downloads floating around puts a bit of a crimp in how much they can overcharge you for the CD and make any sales at all. Considering a typical music CD is priced about 1500% above cost, it sounds like it would just put them in their place and make the market more competitive.

    Oh, yeah, but copyright is supposed to encourage innovation and ensure artists get compensation.

    Well, let’s see, downloading means that some artist somewhere gets zero cents instead of about 3 cents from that $15 CD you didn’t buy — except if you wouldn’t have bought it anyway, in which case they get the same zero cents as before. It doesn’t look like the artists are hard done by by downloading then. Especially when downloads seem to have an effect of advertising albums, and prompt people to buy CDs sometimes that they otherwise wouldn’t have. In that case, the 3 cents gets transferred, typically from someone with 3 billion dollars and 2 economy size silicone implants who blows thousands a week on impulse buys and frivolities to some struggling obscure musician. If anything, downloading helps the artists by robin-hooding them and leveling the playing field for them a bit.

    Oh, but the innovation bit. Well, let’s see, if the RIAA goes under, they’ll stop ramming broadcast flags and induce acts through various legislatures, and … hrm, seems like downloading might help innovation too.

    So, it seems that downloading is entirely in keeping with the intention behind copyright, and it might reasonably be considered an infringement to impair or obstruct, whether technologically or with lawyers, the downloading. 🙂

  3. The Clinton-era NII whitepaper advocated having copyright education in *every grade* from 1st grade through the end of undergrad… it would be like PE… but IPE. 🙂

  4. Eric Smith says:

    Why would a teacher have to explain this stuff to fourth-grade students anyhow? Surely it is not on the official fourth-grade cirriculum? There have been news stories just recently about teachers not having time to teach anything not on the official cirriculum because there’s barely enough time to teach the required subjects adequately in order to prepare the students for the proficiency tests. If there’s anything not on the cirriculum that should be ignored, it’s definitely this ridiculous BSA stuff.

    Note that I do think students should be educated about the basics of copyright. I just think fourth grade might not be the right place. And even if it is the right place, it shouldn’t be done by pushing the BSA agenda. There should be a more neutral approach.

  5. Scott Craver says:

    Years ago there was an article in the student ACM magazine (Crossroads?) making the case for an ethics course in every CS curriculum.

    Since bad code can kill people, and since CS unlike engineering is highly unregulated, it seems perfectly reasonable to have such a course.

    However, the article proposed a syllabus that would spend nearly the entire semester on the importance of honoring copyrights and patents. While copyright is clearly relevant to such a class, it really isn’t that important.

    Once you discuss ethical issues of safety of critical systems, software engineering practices, privacy, open standards, restrictions on code, publication of exploit code, etc, you might have a week left in a semester to talk about copyright.

  6. Chris Tunnell says:

    Are you going to tell us how the talk went? Or are you just saying that doing excercises like this is important?

    Also, are you doing this in one of your classes or is this a special thing hosted by some group like the ACM with you as a speaker?

  7. Eric: This guide was sent out to teachers by Weekly Reader, who worked with the BSA to put together the guide, so it wouldn’t be official curriculum.

    That said, I’ve been involved with Junior Achievement in the past, and they have a lesson plan paid for by the RIAA which also explains (poorly) why copyright infringement is wrong. This would’ve been for 8th graders, and while it wasn’t a required module, I was strongly encouraged to teach it. I chose not to.