Know Your Rights! Copyright & Fair Use

by NAMLE member Lisa Floading, Communications Educator at Port Washington High School, Wisconsin

Perhaps English rock band The Clash said it best: “Know Your Rights!”

In early August, I attended the 2009 NAMLE Conference and the “Yes, You Can! Understanding Copyright and Fair Use for Media Literacy Education” session presented by Renee Hobbs. I came out of the exhilarating session determined to share what I had learned with other educators. By teaching our students how to think critically about mass media, digital technology and popular culture, our notions of literacy are rapidly evolving. In order to serve the needs of our students, it is crucial that we as educators understand the doctrine of fair use as it applies to our use of copyrighted materials in the classroom. Fair use is defined as the right to use copyrighted material without permission (or payment) under certain circumstances when that use has important social or cultural benefits.

The purpose of copyright – as defined by the U.S. Constitution – is to promote creativity, innovation and the spread of knowledge. The Copyright Act of 1976 was written broad and flexible enough to accommodate our changing technologies. However, the Educational Use Guidelines we have come to know on posters displayed around our schools can be confusing and stifling for teachers in many different subject areas. What’s a teacher to do?

In a word, we must learn. We owe it to our students to read The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education – a guide designed by and for educators to help us interpret copyright and fair use. Renee’s presentation reminded me why it is such an exciting time to be a media literacy educator and why we not only have a right but a responsibility to use digital media in the classroom. I encourage all educators to visit the Media Education Lab’s website at and become familiar with the fantastic resources available there, including lesson plans, videos and the Code itself. These are your rights!

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