I am no expert on copyright law. I’m just a teacher who regularly creates his own learning materials and worries about breaching copyright. Since we get most of what we use off the Internet these days, I’m assuming that copyright law is vastly confusing because it must take international law into account. It’s so confusing, I’m not even going to try to understand it. I’m way too busy anyway! I know that after 50-75 years copyright expires, although publishers can hold further claim on a work for a lot longer before a work enters the public domain.
I also know that teachers and students have some protection for breach of copyright if they are only using something in class for purely academic purposes, but that this definition of fair use is much narrower than we conveniently believe. If I display an image I have taken off Google images on a poster in the classroom, I am effectively publishing it and am in breach of copyright. When is a worksheet merely being used in class, and when am I publishing it? These are not easy questions to find an answer to, and it is safe to assume that if you are asking the question, you are probably in breach!
The safest option is to make sure that you use only Creative Commons licensed images and text which explicitly permits distribution. Increasingly there are databases of creative commons images available, but if you cannot find what you want, you can email the owner of the website and request permission. I have never been refused use of an image when I asked nicely! People are overwhelmingly nice about this sort of thing!
Moodle has an excellent feature which allows a student submitting an assignment to set the Creative Commons Licence for their work. This helps create awareness about copyright. I am of the opinion that just as no-one ever sued my grandmother when she cut out pictures from National Geopgraphic to use in her project on volcanoes, students are very unlikely to be questioned when they use Google images – which they do, unthinkingly. However, as teachers we have a duty to make them aware of copyright infringement. It would be nice if every LMS had a little check-box students had to click on to attest that they had not infringed copyright or plagiarised, but in the absence of this they should indicate this, perhaps on a little form signed and attached to their projects. They could then tick whether they had used creative commons images, copyright and royalty free images, or had obtained permission to use an image.
I am not enough of an optimist to believe that this will eliminate all copyright infringement from the classroom, but I believe it will create an awareness around the issue which is not there at present. And that is a start!