Future Negotiations: Fair Use in Our Classrooms

        Throughout this study one thing has become prominently clear to me: fair use and copyright law are not easy to teach. The instructor interviewed in this study used a variety of means to teach her students about fair use and copyright law. In the end, I have found in interviews with seven of those students, as she found as well, the students were still confused about the fair use protocols. What I had not anticipated was this overwhelming confusion between fair use and documentation. Six of the seven students who participated in this case study assumed they would be abiding by fair use if they documented their sources. This is an alarming number. Why is there this confusion? More importantly, as instructors, what can we do to ensure our students understand the laws of fair use and copyright so they are able to compose their projects within the stated boundaries? This is not a question that this particular study can answer, but this case study does illustrate an immediate need for answers to this question.  Our students are members of a growing digital and technological world in which visual, audio, and video, will play a significant role in the way they compose and communicate. As a result, it is crucial that they understand the restraints the law places upon them in these situations.
               Additionally, it may be equally significant to examine further the restrictions placed upon individuals by fair use and copyright law, in particularly the language of the doctrine itself. Perhaps the confusion in documentation and fair use lies in the language of the law. Furthermore, the misunderstandings in the exact nature of the four factors can be attributed to the language of the doctrine as well. Students are use to working within particular restraints, and while it is good for students to learn how to interpret and make judgments on their own, it is difficult to teach them something that has no specific boundaries. Fair use asks composers to apply the four factors on a case by case basis with no one set standard each time. This results in students being confused and unsure about what they are actually able to compose, as well as hindered creatively by the law. In this case study there was one student that began an entire new project to avoid having to judge what video and audio she could use, there was a student who possibly violated fair use completely by using full video clips, and movie projects that could have been more successful with audio track adjustments.  Over all, students were either confused by fair use or violated it.
      Whose obligation is it to mend the confusion that was brought to surface in this study? There is no doubt that the issues of fair use and copyright law are at play in classrooms throughout the academy. It appears that there are two crucial points that need to be addressed: instruction and the law itself. First, instructors must understand the fair use doctrine and copyright law in order to find the best way to effectively teach it to students. Understanding a flexible law is no easy task. Additionally, they have to understand how students interpret these laws and where they are most confused. When I began this study, I had never anticipated the type of confusion this group of students had, but these students made it clear very early on that they were equating fair use with something didn’t pertain to it in the way they understood it to. It is key then for instructors to pin point any confusion and compose an instructional method to best deal with the problem. Second, there is the issue of fair use being flexible and not in a tangible format that can be easily applied. How exactly can instructors teach a flexible law such as fair use? Moreover, how are students expected to abide by a doctrine that they can’t clearly understand? The doctrine could be better suited and followed if it adopted language and specifics that could make it clearer for student to understand. Until then though, it is up to us as instructors to decipher this fair use code for our students. HoWhH

Introduction     Methodology     Case Study     Analysis