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Professors Publish Guide to Copyright Issues of Multimedia Projects

Students often create multimedia projects for classes that blend in clips from YouTube videos or hit songs, and many want to post their creations online for a wider audience. But does that violate copyright law?

It might, and many students fail to understand the legal risks. A new study, titled “Copying Right and Copying Wrong With Web 2.0 Tools in the Teacher Education and Communications Classrooms,” attempts to educate students about both the appropriate and inappropriate ways to use copyrighted materials that are available to mass audiences on the Internet.

“There’s definitely a low-level crisis in copyright education now,” said J. Patrick McGrail, an assistant professor of communication at Jacksonville State University and one of the co-authors of the study. “We’re living in a world where most students regularly appropriate material they see in the music and movies into their own work, but they’re not completely aware of the possible ramifications.”

Mr. McGrail said he was inspired to look further into copyright law after a student revealed his personal troubles with copyright in a lecture. In that case, the student told the class he received a cease-and-desist letter after uploading an audio file to a public file-sharing system. He paid a $3,000 fine to avoid further legal action, Mr. McGrail said.

Since then, the professor has worked with his wife, Ewa, an associate professor of English education at Georgia State University, evaluating scholarly articles on copyright law, especially those concerning students who incorporate pieces of copyrighted materials into class assignments.

Their article, published in the September edition of Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, presents a set of guidelines to determine whether a certain type of use of online materials may violate copyright law.

Borrowing copyrighted clips and presenting them in a closed classroom is always a protected fair use of the material, the scholars said. The challenge comes when students decide to release and publish their works to the wider Internet, Mr. McGrail said. The Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization Act of 2002, a recent copyright law dealing with online technologies, only gives students permission to release these works on a password-protected program in which only the instructor and enrolled students have access—such as Blackboard or other course-management systems.

Publishing a project that contains copyrighted material without permission, even if it is created in an educational context, may not win protection in court, the professor said. The best defense for students remains creating completely original work.

The paper also recommends finding copyright holders and getting permission, though that can be difficult to do in time for a class deadline, even when the work was simply created by another student. A more realistic bet might be turning to online libraries of photos, videos, and songs covered by Creative Commons licenses, which means their owners have granted limited permission to reuse under certain conditions. Those sites include the Freesound Project, Open Source Movies, and parts of Flickr, the popular photo-sharing Web site. Students should review the license on each item, though, because sanctioned uses can vary from item to item, he said.

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