Why US Copyright Law Should Be Taught In Public Schools

Copyright Office

Over 6,000 copyright infringement lawsuits were filed in 2008, according to  U.S. Courts Director’s Annual Report.

It is something that public education and a lot of higher education institutions in the U.S. do not take the time to teach. Maybe a rogue educator takes the time to mention it in his or her class, but the copyright law is too complex for an elevator conversation.

“They [photographers] want me to teach it [copyright law] to them in 2 hours, and it is just not possible to cover all of the important information,” says Alicia Wagner Calzada, Advocacy Chairperson for the  National Press Photographers Association.

People begin to realize that there’s this thing called copyright law when either their work gets stolen or they are sued for copyright infringement. This is not the time to begin learning about the copyright, it should’ve been done earlier and maybe this wouldn’t have happened. But in a society where access to information has never been greater, the ignorance level has only gone up – the paradox of the Digital Age.

Copyright Law Basics

The copyright law “provides protection to the authors of ‘original works of authorship,’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works,” according to the US Copyright Office. The protection lasts during an author’s lifetime and an additional 70 years after death.

“Anyone who violates any of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner… is an infringer of the copyright or right of the author,” according to Section 501, Title 17 of the US Code.

In a nutshell, when you create something you own the copyright to that creation. If anyone uses it without your permission they violate your rights and federal law. The law, however, does allow free use in certain situations. This is called “fair use.”

“Fair use” is a very vague concept, which gives a lot of people room to claim it even though they are violating copyright law. Section 107, Title 17 of the US Code says that “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.”

Many people believe that as long as they don’t use it commercially, they are covered by the “fair use” policy for personal use.

“A good rule of thumb for everyone is that if you are going to use photos that you did not take yourself, you should get permission from the photographer first. Whether or not you might have a legal right to use the image under fair use laws is not something you want to think about for the first time after you are staring down a lawsuit,” Wagner Calzada says.


“Because contemporary technology allows us to more easily produce as well as consume media, we are able to cut and paste, remix and mash-up. Those skills can be learned anywhere – and usually nowhere near a class curriculum that includes courses on ethics or on copyright law. Those were staples of journalism and business law classes. It is taking the rest of society a while to catch up with these ethical and legal concepts – which can, to them, seem authoritarian and restrictive,” Jill Geisler says, senior faculty of leadership and management at  The Poynter Institute. “For proof of that, think of the numbers of people who engaged in file-sharing of music, believing it was a right that was being denied them by the greed of the music industry. The industry was Goliath. The illegal downloaders saw themselves as David. Taking the work product of others was, to David’s, defensible.”

Technology plays an important part, especially now. Information sharing is at the core of the Digital Age. People share text, photos, audio, video, code, and much more; rarely do they consider the ramifications of their illegal activities on their life and the life of the copyright owner. It became second nature.

The radical price of free infected all other prices. Now, everyone wants everything for free. It is not their concern that to create something, content creators need funding. Nothing is created for free. Yet the detachment of the public from the rational world has never been greater. Everything is about the satisfaction of their ego, the cheaper the better.

“People violate copyright for any number of reasons, including they are too lazy to track down the photographer and ask permission; they are too cheap to pay for photography, but want to use the photo anyway; they have a sense of entitlement; for some reason, they are under the false impression that they don’t have to get a license to use an image; and as it becomes easier and easier to become a ‘publisher,’ there are a lot of people publishing without any knowledge of relevant laws,” Wagner Calzada says. “Getting people educated about when it is required to get permission to use a photo is a challenge because many would rather not know and plead ignorance.”

AFP v. Morel

The tragedy of the Haiti earthquake will never leave our memories. The work of photojournalists and journalists covering it the day of the disaster brought the world to pause, take a deep breath and contemplate the fragility of life.

David Morel was in Haiti at that time, photographing. When the earthquake happened he was one of the first photographers on the scene. He decided to transmit photographs through Twitter and Twitpic out to the world; he wanted people to see what was happening.

When he posted his photographs on Twitter another user, by the name of Lisandro Suero, downloaded Morel’s photographs and reposted them on his own account. Agence Frence Presse (AFP) distributed photographs giving credit to the wrong photographer even though one of their editors knew photographs were Morel’s, according to PDN Online.

A few years ago, Getty Images, signed a distribution agreement with AFP to allow Getty clients to use AFP photographs. Many newspapers around the world began circulating the photographs. When Morel found out about his photographs being improperly credited he sent out a cease-and-desist letter to AFP, Getty, and its clients.

They were furious, so furious that they have decided to sue Morel for “antagonistic” assertion of rights and commercial defamation. AFP claimed that when Morel posted his photographs on Twitter he allowed third parties to “use, copy, publish, display, and distribute” his own photographs.

The case is still pending. However, it’s been almost a year since this calamity began. A quick search turned up a photo slideshow on Newsweek’s blog with David Morel’s photographs still being attributed to Suero.

Morel’s case was a clear and intentional violation of his rights by AFP as they knew what the law is and who the photographer was. This is not always the case. Sometimes people think they know what the law is, but lack of continuing education and self-improvement leads to unintentional ignorance. Cooks Source Magazine Fiasco

A blogger, Monica Gaudio, recently became aware of one of her articles being printed in a magazine called Cooks Source. It was lifted from her blog and reprinted without her permission. Gaudio contacted the magazine’s editor to request fees for reprint and donate those fees to a university. The reply from the editor did not only surprise Gaudio, but it angered internet users worldwide.

“I have been doing this for 3 decades… the web is considered ‘public domain’ and you should be happy we just didn’t ‘lift’ your whole article and put someone else’s name on it,” the editor writes.

Internet is not a public domain. Everything created on the internet, just like the physical world, has a creator, who owns the copyright. This reply prompted an internet-wide investigation of other articles in Cooks Source magazine and website, according to  NPR Monkey See blog. It became apparent that many articles might’ve been copied from Martha Stewart, Food Network, Weight Watchers, and NPR.

With so much information out there about copyright and copyright infringement lawsuits you still get people who are completely oblivious to the facts. How could one go 30 years of publishing with a lack of copyright law knowledge? This is a perfect example of how copyright law is seen by the public. It is a minutia to them. Nothing more than some fancy legal talk on paper.


Ignorance is never an option. The copyright law awareness needs to spread not only throughout the professional circles but to college and public schools as well. It is as important as knowing how to write an essay in English class because you have to know what rights you have as an author of that essay and what you can do if someone plagiarizes it.

Creating a curriculum of success should be the top priority of any educational institution, and copyright law is an inalienable part of a successful career.

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Viktor Nagornyy

Viktor Nagornyy

For the past 14 years, Viktor has worked with businesses of all sizes, helping them generate more leads and sales through an effective inbound marketing strategy and conversion-optimized websites while increasing marketing efficiency with marketing automation tools and tactics. Follow on Mastodon: viktor@me.dm