By , November 08, 2010.

Media Law Prof Blog points out a recent paper that examines the attitudes and beliefs of youngsters about copyright: Youth, Creativity, and Copyright in the Digital Age, by John Palfrey, Urs Gasser, Miriam Simun, and Rosalie Fay Barnes. The abstract reads:

New digital networked technologies enable users to participate in the consumption, distribution, and creation of content in ways that are revolutionary for both culture and industry. As a result, “Digital Natives” — young people growing up in the digital world with access to the technologies and the skills to use them in sophisticated ways — are now confronting copyright law on a regular basis. This article presents qualitative research conducted with students age 12-22 that explores youth understanding, attitudes, and discourse on the topic of digital creativity and copyright law. Our findings suggest that young people operate in the digital realm overwhelmingly ignorant of the rights, and to a lesser degree the restrictions, established in copyright law. They often engage in unlawful behavior, such as illegal peer-to-peer music downloading, yet they nevertheless demonstrate an interest in the rights and livelihoods of creators. Building upon our findings of the disconnect between technical, legal, and social norms as pertaining to copyright law, we present the initial stages of the development of an educational intervention that posits students as creators: the Creative Rights copyright curriculum. Educating youth about copyright law is important for empowering young people as actors in society, both in terms of their ability to contribute to cultural knowledge with creative practices and to engage with the laws that govern society.

The paper is worth reading and should prove valuable to other scholars and commentators for its research. The conclusions of the authors shouldn’t be too surprising to many of you, but it is useful to have confirmation of the assumptions of attitudes about copyright law among young people. In addition, the authors provide quite a few interesting quotations from “Digital Natives” which adds depth to the qualitative findings.

Among other things, the researchers found that confusion about copyright starts with the very basics: what does copyright ‘mean’? “Many of the young people we spoke to confused copyright with notions of plagiarism or patent protections; for example, one high school student wrote: ‘[copyright is] protected by law so you can’t steal ideas.'” Anyone familiar with copyright law won’t be surprised by that finding, as conflation of copyright with patents or plagiarism persists in any age group. 1Though it is interesting to note that some of the youngsters seem to have a firmer grasp of secondary liability than grown-ups: said one high school student interviewed in the article, “if the government has a problem with people stealing music, why don’t you shut down LimeWire? Why are you going after people downloading from the site?”

Perhaps the confusion between copyright infringement and plagiarism — issues that are distinct but overlap — isn’t really a big deal. Of greater concern is the increased number of the younger generation who see nothing wrong with copyright infringement or plagiarism. As Jonathan Bailey has pointed out, the number of students who view plagiarism as “serious cheating” has decreased in the past decade.

Along with the basics, confusion over copyright specifics is prevalent in younger generations too. Again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise since such confusion is prevalent among the population as a whole. Last week, a minor scandal arose on the internet after an exchange between a writer and the editor of Cooks Source magazine after the writer discovered the magazine had reprinted one of her articles without permission. 2Vega, Tanzina, A Social Media Firestorm About Apple Pies, New York Times, Nov 4, 2010. In a rather condescending reply, the editor, although claiming over three decades experience in the publishing industry, incorrectly told the author that “the web is considered ‘public domain.'”

The authors present several ideas for increasing copyright literacy among “Digital Natives.” One of the challenges of copyright education is the disconnect between the law and what is considered socially acceptable behavior. The ease with which content can be distributed and accessed online, even on legitimate services like YouTube adds to the challenge of helping young internet users distinguish between what types of uses are allowed and what types of uses are not.

However, the authors note that the focus of any copyright curriculum should not lie solely on copyright as mere restrictions and prohibitions. More important is educating students about copyright’s goals and purposes of encouraging creativity and art. Showing how copyright protection helps artists, and how “Digital Natives” can work within the copyright system to become the next generation of creators, will achieve more than presenting copyright as a set of rules aimed at punishing young people.

Although the authors of this article show some skepticism toward industry copyright education efforts, I’d like to point them out. The RIAA has a section devoted to tools for educators on its web site, with different programs for elementary, high school, and university students. The Copyright Alliance Education Foundation presents a comprehensive array of related educational programs for teaching copyright to young people, as well as educators themselves, on its site.

I agree about the need for increased copyright literacy among young people, whatever the approach. I believe, however, as pointed out in a previous post, that there is an even greater need for increasing literacy about the law in general — and not just for young people.


1 Though it is interesting to note that some of the youngsters seem to have a firmer grasp of secondary liability than grown-ups: said one high school student interviewed in the article, “if the government has a problem with people stealing music, why don’t you shut down LimeWire? Why are you going after people downloading from the site?”
2 Vega, Tanzina, A Social Media Firestorm About Apple Pies, New York Times, Nov 4, 2010.


  1. Well, actually the web is considered public domain. It’s only publishers and their copyright lawyers that try to persuade people there can exist a quasi-private domain, that works can be published and yet not be public.

    ‘Public domain’ being synonymous with ‘works not protected by copyright’ is a very recent insinuation.

    That some unwittingly confuse plagiarism with copyright infringement doesn’t mean others cannot wittingly confuse the public domain as exclusive of copyright ‘protected’ works.

    • I’m not sure what you mean by “a very recent insinuation.”

      Describing works not protected by copyright as “public domain” dates back to the mid 1800’s (eg, A Treatise on the Law of Copyright in Books, etc — published in 1847 — uses the term), placing the use of the term in that manner closer to the Statute of Anne then the present day.

      • The transition of ‘public domain’ from meaning ‘available to/accessible to/in the grasp of/in the knowledge of’ the public to ‘works not protected by copyright’ has occurred in direct proportion to the rising in the public’s consciousness of copyright as a means of withholding a published work from the public’s liberty to circulate.

        A transition in meaning does not flip from one to the other upon the first instance of the latter. It is gradual, like the transition of ‘gay’ from ‘happy’ to ‘homosexual’.

        You may cite a ‘first use’, but this does not make the transition in meaning occur at that point.

        The question “Is it in the public domain?” has until very recently meant “Has it been published? Is it public knowledge?”, not “Is it still ‘protected’ by copyright?”

        It is only the very recent advent of The Internet and widespread copying facilities that the question of whether a work is protected by copyright has escaped the confines of publishing/broadcasting into the vernacular of the general public, and ‘public domain’ takes on the esoteric meaning and consequently insinuates that ‘protected’ works are no longer to be considered in the public domain – despite being published.

        For those of us familiar with copyright law it seems as if it has always meant ‘not protected by copyright’.

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  3. I think this points out the challenge with expecting social mores to limit plagiarism. The idea that even without copyright, people will understand that they can’t lift content and claim it as their own or use it unattributed is not a given.

    • @Suzanne
      I don’t think the article is saying that in general. I doubt also that children need more education in how copyright is used to stifle creativity in quite a number of ways.

      First, both of these concepts are ~200 years old. Civilization thrived greatly without this supposed need for copyright laws. First, if someone claims a work as their own, those social mores do work to change and influence the behavior that is acceptable. Ironically, nowadays it seems we need a right to copy. We need a right to have a basis for an idea and build upon it in a unique way.
      Regardless, those social mores continue to work in this day. Look at what happened to Brian Coswalt for plagiarizing. Really made him look bad.
      I doubt the copyright initiative by these large corporations will go very far. Before the 1970s, copyright didn’t really affect the average citizen. Now, it makes them mad when their own way of life is invaded.