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Zombie Copyright Laws

The question of whether we as a global society need to rethink copyright laws is probably the least interesting or controversial part of the current debate. Yes – of course we do. Perhaps the best illustration of why we need to overhaul these laws comes from the US Court case of Captial Records versus ReDigi back in 2012 and 2013.  ReDigi is an innovative software company that seeks to all buyers of digital music the same ability to resell that music that those who buy records, tapes, and CDs enjoy. Below is the story from NPR’s Planet Money with the details of the case.

A transcription of the final decision of the case is as follows:

“Finally, ReDigi feebly argues that the Court’s reading of Section 109(a) would in effect exclude digital works from the meaning of the statute. (ReDigi Mem. 21.) That is not the case. Section 109(a) still protects a lawful owner’s sale of her “particular” phonorecord, be it a computer hard disk, iPod, or other memory device onto which the file was originally downloaded. While this limitation clearly presents obstacles to resale that are different from, and perhaps even more onerous than, those involved in the resale of CDs and cassettes, the limitation is hardly absurd – the first sale doctrine was enacted in a world where the ease and speed of data transfer could not have been imagined. There are many reasons, some discussed herein, for why such physical limitations may be desirable. It is left to Congress, and not this Court, to deem them outmoded. Accordingly, the Court concludes that the first sale defense does not permit sales of digital music files on ReDigi’s website.”  US DISTRICT OF NEW YORK No. 12 Civ. 95 (RJS) CAPITOL RECORDS, LLC, VERSUS REDIGI INC.

Notice that Judge Sullivan rules that the law only protects the owner’s right to sell a “particular phonorecord”, not the digital recording itself. In other words, if you want to sell the songs you don’t want on your iPod, you have to actually sell your iPod.  Judge Sullivan continues, stating “It is left to Congress, and not this Court, to deem (any shortcomings) outmoded.” If this is not a plea to Congress to clarify and improve it’s copyright laws, then it’s hard to imagine what is.

The need for copyright reform is made that much more clear by Lawrence Lessig in his TED Talk, “Re-examining the remix”.

In his talk, Lessig talks about how important it is that we find a middle ground, one that both encourages commercial production of content but also a “read-write” culture that feels able to remix and re-create that content in new, original forms.  Lessig notes that these ideas find support from both liberals and conservatives, and he quotes from Julian Sanchez, writer for the CATO Institute:

“Copyright policy isn’t just about how to incentivize the production of certain kind of artistic commodity. It’s about what level of control we’re going to permit to be exercised over our social realities, social realities that are now inevitably permeated by pop culture. I think that it’s important that we keep these two different kinds of public goods in mind; if we’re only focused on how to maximize the supply of one, we risk suppressing this different and richer, and in some ways even more important one.”

The need for copyright law overhaul is probably more clear than the proper way we should teach about it.  How do we help students, and teachers, find a middle-ground that avoids both unnecessary fear of publishing anything and a ‘copyright abolitionism’ that is often found among kids today? What’s even harder, how do we help kids understand these issues when they live in a country like Vietnam where it is virtually impossible for them to rent a movie legally? If they go to a DVD store to rent something, the copies are all pirated, and if they try to stream it legally from the internet it is often so slow that it is unwatchable.

I have spoken a few times with both our Tech Director and our MSHS librarian about copyright and attribution laws. Thus far, no one has been able to give me full clarity on the issues.  Part of the problem is the ambiguity of both Fair Use and attribution rules under Creative Commons.  I think that to be fair to our students we need to ‘teach the controversy’ and present this as an interesting but somewhat ambiguous situation. I would love to teach about this as a mock court case or debate. Is there an obvious middle ground solution that would help everyone but just can’t get political traction, or is it inherently muddled?

The ability of students to participate in modern popular culture with creation, re-creation, and imagination is greater now than any time in the past century.  One of the best TED talks I saw on this was by Kirby Ferguson, called Embrace the Remix.

Media companies may be trying to cling to their copyrighted content as long as they can, but in the long run it seems like that will only backfire. If kids today are told to follow unreasonable laws, then when they are the majority we may well end up swinging to the opposite side of the pendulum.

Expectations of Privacy

It’s interesting to me how privacy means so many different things to different people. Growing up in a Boston suburb in the 1990s, for me privacy meant having my own room and being able to lock my door.  For my parents it meant not being interrupted at dinnertime by telemarketers, and not giving out their Social Security number to random people. Privacy meant not asking casual acquaintances about their personal life, and not going to someone else’s house unannounced.

One of the amazing things about going to college was that I was surrounded by people who didn’t know me; I could reinvent myself and could let go of the baggage of past mistakes.  There was the anonymity of stepping into a classroom where you didn’t know anyone, and the excitement of having a more fluid identity.

West Lake CoupleHere in Vietnam there is an entirely different notion of privacy; community plays a much more important role than personal space.  Most Vietnamese live with their parents until they get married, and then they move into a house nearby their parents and live with their spouse.  In order to find ‘privacy’, young couples will sit on their motorbikes by the lake, often just outside my apartment, where they will sit, talk, and kiss.

kids fighting by tonbabydc https://www.flickr.com/photos/9545289@N05/5072938385/

When we look at the question of online privacy, the issue becomes that much more complex.  On the one hand we have the problems on anonymity: where people will feel able to say nasty and hurtful about one another because there is no social accountability.  In many ways, though, this type of behavior has been going on for decades. Kids have been passing anonymous notes in classrooms since the invention of paper. When I was in high school a few kids wrote up a s#@& list of mean things about everyone in school, photocopied it, and then dropped the lists off where people could find them.  Those students were caught on surveillance footage at the photocopy store.

On the other hand, we have problems of too little anonymity: people are haunted by their digital footprint for years if they make inappropriate remarks that ‘go viral’. This becomes increasingly problematic for public figures like politicians, sports figures, and celebrities. It’s easy to see how people who are accustomed to having a private life get frustrated at these ‘intrusions’. For most of us, though, we are protected by a mountain of hay; there is so much data about everyone that most of the time we can safely assume that no one is paying close attention to our individual needle.

Although we make a big deal out of online privacy issues, it seems to me that most aspects of online privacy actually have close parallels in the face-to-face world:

People say… In reality…
Once you post something online it is ‘there forever’ Everyone who has parents who enjoy embarrassing stories knows that even events from decades ago can and do get brought up on a regular basis
Kids are at risk from online predators Most parents are terrible at gaging the probabilities of various threats. Online predators are far more rare than abusive family members and family friends.
Kids often engage in cyberbullying Bullying, whether online or face-to-face, whether physical, verbal, or social, goes on in every school to a greater or lesser extent. Kids use unsupervised spaces to learn how to socialize, and one aspect of poor socialization is bullying.
Your whole digital trail is an open record for anyone who knows what they’re doing For most people, taking reasonable cyber-security precautions is enough. We are protected by the immensity of total data and by the number of people online. Just as in real life, though, sometimes we get unlucky, and if someone is determined to find out everything about us they will probably figure out a way to do it

Tattoos for all

Mrs. M. Stevens Wagner (Woman with upper body tattooed) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_tattooing Public Domain

Whether we use the term ‘digital footprint’ or ‘digital tattoo’, either way this has become an important piece of learning both in and out of the classroom.  Last year, my colleague Michelle and I did a series of workshops with parents about digital citizenship, social media, and helping students control their digital footprints. When parents asked us when we began these conversations and lessons with students, the answer was ‘as soon as they have an email account’.  Even email, perhaps the most innocuous of social media, has a potential for negative consequences if abused.

Image: ‘who do we appreciate’
Found on flickrcc.net

As many have pointed out, teaching kids to manage their digital footprints begins by modeling this behaviour for our students. Teachers have been doing this in the face-to-face world for centuries by both keeping up their reputation and standing in the community as well as creating boundaries with their students. Part of managing our digital footprints with students is simply an extension of this tradition; for example, most teachers do not ‘friend’ their students on Facebook and don’t allow compromising pictures of themselves to get posted and tagged.

While controlling the negative aspects of one’s digital footprint is a bit of a no-brainer, controlling the positive is a bit more difficult to come to terms with.  Should all teachers blog, have their own website, and be active on Twitter?  Is having a website today the equivalent of having a resume 10 years ago – is it just expected?

I see many positive aspects of a teacher having a strong, positive footprint, but I don’t think that blogging, websites, and tweeting are mandatory for everyone (teacher or student).  What is important is that we find tools we can use to promote ourselves and accomplish our goals within our various disciplines.  I see several layers of engagement in creating a digital footprint as a teacher:

  1. Dependent, static footprint: At a minimum, it’s important when looking for a job to meet the expectations of potential employers.  If you are looking for a job through Search Associates or similar group, you obviously have to create a strong profile within that framework.  In addition, I think it is wise for teachers and other professionals to have a LinkedIn profile that is attractive and up to date. It doesn’t take very much work, and it provides a way for employers to cross-check your resume against your digital footprint.
  2. Independent but static footprint:  The next level of engagement would be to build a professional website that showcases your bio, teaching philosophy, resume, and samples of lessons or work.  This is sort of like a digital resume; it needs to be updated over the years with new credentials and examples, but overall it is still fairly static.
  3. Dynamic digital footprint:  This level of engagement reflects an ongoing connection to and involvement with various online communities.  The most common venues are Twitter, Google+, and blogs, though there are others as well.  At this level, teachers have a strong PLN and work to further their own skills in collaboration with other teachers around the world.  Having connections like this is great for any teacher, but I’ve met many who are able to grow and develop as a teacher through face-to-face connections instead.  For tech coaches and coordinators, however, having a dynamic digital footprint is mandatory.
  4. Innovative digital leadership:  This is the level that many of us in ed-tech aspire to.  This is the point where you are not only immersed in an online PLN, but you are far enough in front of the crowd that people are looking to you to set the trends.

The implications for students out of all of this are numerous.  Like teachers, it is vital that students understand how to keep their private lives private so they don’t interfere with college and job opportunities.

As far as promoting a positive digital footprint, however, it gets much trickier.  Many teachers and admin get very excited about ‘digital portfolios’, but I’ve seen mostly failed attempts at implementing when it comes to MS and HS students.  Often it seems like we are asking them to reflect on the comments made on their reflection regarding a reflective piece of writing.  In other words, it can easily turn into a house of mirrors where teachers continuously tell students that this is ‘really important’ but neither the students nor the teachers believe it.

Oftentimes, the problem is that students are asked to blog about things that aren’t actual problems that need to be solved.  When a student writes about his or her science experiment, it is more to satisfy a teacher’s requirement than to fill a gap in the world knowledge on grade 7 science.

When blogging does meet an actual need, not only does student engagement go up but the quality of the blogging does as well. As William M. Ferriter wrote in Educational Leadership,

Image: ‘Mouth’ http://www.flickr.com/photos/7236030@N03/2755063715 Found on flickrcc.net

“Whether they’re working to raise awareness of the genocide in Darfur—a project that George Mayo’s students tackled (http://stopgenocide.wikispaces.com)—or doing a good deed every day for a month and sharing about it online—an initiative that 10-year-old Laura Stockman started to honor her grandfather’s life (http://twentyfivedays.wordpress.com)—today’s teens and tweens can come together electronically to learn about and act on issues that matter.”

If everyone blogs or tweets just to create a digital footprint and to get their next job, then it will be the equivalent of the whole world shouting out their windows just to hear their own voice.  We need to spend less time talking about getting kids blogging, and more time connecting them to projects for which blogging deals with an actual issue, whether war in Darfur and a girl who wants to honor her grandfather.