Intellectual Property Rights In Real Life

It’s hard to teach students the rationale for proper attribution and citation when the only contexts and consequences they experience exist at school. If they copy a paper, teachers tell them it’s dishonest and unfair to the original author, but the punishment comes from us. There is no tangible victim with whom students can empathize, nor a punishment that is meaningful in the real world (many of my students do not consider grades part of the real world).

Today I got an opportunity to give my students a real-world lesson in intellectual property rights and infringement. They’ve been working on propaganda video projects for the past three weeks as part of our interwar years unit. Today they submitted them and we spent the class period watching and critiquing their efforts. I required the students to upload their videos to YouTube to eliminate problems with incompatible file formats – every year a student uses Windows Movie Maker and copies the .wlmp file instead of exporting it as an AVI or MP4 (.wlmp is the index file that simply references the media; it’s similar to an iMovie project file). Most students were able to accomplish this, but one group uploaded their work and rushed to class, only to be met with this screen when we tried to play it back:


Unauthorized user. Access denied!
Unauthorized user. Access denied!

That’s right – just like TurnItIn scans student papers for plagiarism, YouTube scans media files for copyrighted video or audio and automatically strips them out. Other students received similar warnings about copyright infringement due to background music, without their videos actually being blocked.

I explained to the class that this was a real world consequence of their plagiarism, and that this was why we teachers valued originality of words and ideas. Even when done without malicious intent, copying was considered copyright infringment (akin to plagiarism), and businesses cared about it, too. The group whose video was blocked was really disappointed that they weren’t able to showcase their hard work and get feedback from the class, and were shocked to learn that if they had infringed in the course of paid, commercial work, they or their employer might be liable for thousands of dollars in penalties. It was a meaningful consequence and a lesson that they will remember for their next project.

This wasn’t the end, though. The group was able to export their video from a laptop to a flash drive, so I played it locally from my computer towards the end of the period, bypassing YouTube’s content checking. When we watched their video, I saw that they had taken many separate clips – no more than 30 seconds each – and remixed them into an original piece that did a fairly good job as a propaganda video. Once we watched the video, I asked the students if the work did, in fact, constitute plagiarism/infringement. The class agreed that the group had created an original work without using substantial portions of any one clip. So the lesson turned into one about corporate overreach and the challenges that artists and creative minds face in the digital world. Not too bad for a 10th grade project on totalitarianism and propaganda.

One thought on “Intellectual Property Rights In Real Life”

  1. Successful education requires a curious, motivated student and a competent teacher. Spectacular teachers include enthusiasm and the ability to spontaneously add relevant real world learning experiences not included in a lesson plan. You are obviously a chip off the old block, and as you move beyond the classroom I see you as helping competent teachers become spectacular teachers.

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