Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

By John Guerra

Educators of today’s youth constantly strive to provide new and engaging methods to inspire and teach a very unique, tech-savvy generation of students. The challenge of keeping a classroom full of Millennial’s heads out of “the cloud” is no easy task which is why they do their best to incorporate technology in our lesson plans when they can… and just before calling I.T. for help, those students come back down to earth offering multiple solutions before the rest of us even know what the problem is.

Much like this generation of students, technology plays a larger role in today’s society than ever before. Yes, technology and our students are the future, and while sometimes we may struggle to understand how they work, they understand each other quite well. Some students are learning C++ before long division…and if you think C++ is a new grading scale, please, keep reading.

These days most students can find multiple ways to wirelessly connect to a smart TV or classroom projector with their smartphones before we realize the HDMI cord is unplugged so when it comes to technology, what knowledge or experience can we pass on to an age group that seems to know more about it than we do? They may already know how to use today’s technology, but like it or not, we are responsible for teaching them the rules of when and how to use it responsibly, and we should start with leading by example.

Practicing good digital citizenship relies on our understanding of Fair Use, Educational Exemption, and Federal Copyright Law. Most of us understand, for example, that it is against the law to purchase a single textbook and make copies for each student. The same concept applies in the digital age: it is against Federal Copyright Law to purchase a single computer program and upload it to multiple computers beyond your own personal devices. In many cases, technology catches up with ways to keep us in check – in this case through Digital Rights Management (DRM) which is a systematic approach to copyright protection for digital media. The purpose of DRM is to prevent unauthorized redistribution of digital media and restrict the ways consumers can copy content they’ve purchased. But what happens when DRM isn’t around to save us from ourselves, and our misguided assumptions of copyright compliance are passed on to the first generation involved with the advancement of technology prior to graduation?

According to Movie Licensing USA, a division of Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., and the sole source of licensing films for the vast majority of major Hollywood studios to K-12 schools, only about 20% of schools in the US hold their annual blanket movie license for compliance when movies are shown. This doesn’t necessarily mean the other 80% is guilty, but chances are most if not all have shown movies for entertainment purposes in the school building at some point since the Federal Copyright Act was instated in 1976. Whether it was during a rainy day recess, before or after school programs, a reward for good behavior, during holiday parties/end of the year celebrations, or even a family movie night with free admission, if the proper licensing or permissions were not obtained, copyright infringement occurred.

“I purchased the movie so I can do what I want with it as long as no financial gain is made.”

This misguided statement is one of many misconceptions surrounding Federal Copyright Law.  For those of us guilty of fast-forwarding through the FBI warning at the beginning of every movie, it basically states that neither the rental nor the purchase of a movie carries with it the right to copy, distribute, or show the movie publicly outside the home, unless the site where the movie is used is properly licensed for public exhibition. Ownership of the movie and the right to use it publicly are two separate issues. The copyright holder retains exclusive public performance rights. This legal requirement applies:

  • Regardless of how the movies are obtained
  • Whether or not an admission fee is charged
  • Whether the facility or organization is commercial or non-profit
  • Whether a federal, state or local agency is involved

“As an educator, I am protected from copyright infringement through Educational Exemption.”

“Educational Exemption,” also called the “face-to-face teaching exemption,” is a precise activity which allows the legal use of movies in certain types of teaching. In order for a movie to be considered an “Educational Exemption,” all criteria must be met:

  • A teacher or instructor is present.
  • The showing takes place in a classroom setting with only the enrolled students attending.
  • The movie is used as an essential part of the core, required curriculum being taught. (The instructor should be able to prove how the use of the motion picture contributes to the overall required course study and syllabus.)
  • The movie being used is a legitimate copy, not taped from a legitimate copy or taped from TV.

Library Media Specialists, Directors of Technology, and even a district’s Risk Management Department are generally charged with the responsibility of copyright compliance in schools. They make sure the use of any intellectual property like literature, textbooks, music, computer software, and even school musicals are properly licensed to avoid infringement. However, because of the many misconceptions regarding the fair use of copyrighted materials, schools have been committing copyright infringement for decades without knowing it. No matter how innocent or unintentional the circumstance, ignorance of the law does not protect those who break it, and with the continuous progression of anti-piracy technology, it could catch up to them.


John Guerra is longtime MLN ally and an account management professional in St. Louis, Missouri, who is looking for a new customer success or account executive role (due to the pandemic). See his Linked In profile here. 


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