Copyright 101 for Education in the Digital Era

Image by Moshe Harosh on Pixabay

Books, peer-reviewed articles, magazines, interviews, and websites. That is the extent of the sources I had to learn to reference when I was in university. It was a straightforward process: either summarize, paraphrase or quote the source, put an in-text citation, and add a reference in the bibliography. That was it. Simple. Academic honesty and the necessary knowledge about copyright was reduced to make sure that I properly acknowledged my sources in all my papers, and that I didn’t copy someone else’s work, or allowed somebody else to copy mine.

In information-rich times, this process is now substantially more complex for two reasons. First, there is a wider range of media types that are readily available to all through the Internet. Second, the advancement in technological devices and Web 2.0 applications, allow the average person to easily create and share information in a variety of formats and mediums, previously reserved to professional fields. In particular, with the ubiquitous nature of digital media, the possibilities for remixing to create new works has become commonplace. The documentary Eyes Wide Open illustrates this.

So, what do we, as teachers, need to know about copyright in the digital era?

All these changes in our information landscape inevitably have had a ripple effect in teaching and learning. On a daily basis, through the learning engagements that we set up, our students are exposed to a variety of media, both as consumers and as producers. In consequence, knowing how to use these media responsibly and respectfully should be a key aspect of our teaching, but in order to be able to do this, we all should be knowledgeable about the basics of copyright in education. Yes, I said all teachers. Media and information literacy concern all disciplines, thus they need to be addressed across all subject areas.

Using my own experience, these are some of the issues that come up quite frequently in class, and that can be addressed with a solid understanding of the basic principles of copyright.

  • Do you need to cite all the sources used in a piece of work, including information that is common knowledge or that is part of the public domain?
  • How do you cite mixed media?
  • Can you use all images, videos and other types of media found through search engines as long as you cite them?
  • Can you use a song that you bought on iTunes in your own work?
  • Can you change the lyrics to a song you bought on iTunes and share it on social media?
  • Can you modify all images and remix them with other media to create a new work?

I polled my students (Grade 6, Grade 10 and Grade 12) on some of these questions, and here are their answers.

Some interesting results there. While I can confidently answer some of the questions above, there are a few that made me realize I needed to make an effort to better understand some aspects of copyright. After conducting my research, I decided to condense my findings into an infographic that I can easily share with other teachers and with my students.

Next Steps

I  have realized that I need to be more consistent in the way I select and acknowledge the sources I use in my teaching materials to make sure that I am modeling good practices at all times. I also need to spend more time engaging my students with the key features of copyright and its limitations, allowing my students to have plenty of practice for those tricky situations. Finally, I am going to encourage my students to choose Creative Commons licenses for their own creative works so they can share with the world on their own terms.


Featured image by PDPics on Pixabay


7 thoughts on “Copyright 101 for Education in the Digital Era

  1. Hi Lina,

    That’s a great infographic! Thanks for sharing.

    I think that the first time that I heard about “Public Domain” was listening to LibreVox audiobook recordings because they always begin by noting that the books are outside of copyright due to their age.

    You’re right about how complicated it can be to cite new media. There is SO. MUCH. GREY AREA. And I think that your desire to model good choices is a great way to get kids thinking about the way that they use media.


    1. @vania-gross I agree, the grey areas are plentiful and it is almost impossible to find a one-size-fits-all answer, which is what many students want to know. Instead, working through the guiding principles of copyright is what might help them make decisions in those situations. It’s very tricky!


  2. Man how times have changed. I too remember high school and college where I had my MLA citations small paperback book I would carry with me to ensure I was citing my sources correctly. I agonized over it because I am by nature a perfectionist and I was so afraid of not doing it correctly and hence being accused of plagiarism. I can’t imagine the pressure and confusion our students feel now because as you stated the ‘ubiquitous nature of digital media’ is now commonplace.

    I loved the results you posted from polling your students on this topic. Since I teach first grade, citing for my students is very basic, and they often don’t worry about or have such questions on this topic. So this poll opened my eyes a bit to the reality facing older students this day and age. Funny enough, after doing research on copyright for myself, I still do not feel confident to answer those 3 questions with absolute certainty I would get them correct. Thinking that makes me wonder what kind of results you would get if instead of polling students, you polled teachers instead. I think it would be interesting for you to put that out on your Twitter page to see how it turns out. I would contribute to it!

    Also the infographic you created for students and other teachers is a great resource. I appreciate its simplicity and organization that makes it easily readable and clear on a topic that is not so clear or simple to understand. Thanks for sharing this great post!


    1. @jessicarosephillips, I was actually thinking the exact same thing as I was writing this post. I too wondered how much teachers know about copyright (or think they know – like myself). If teachers are not clear on how copyright and its limitations work, it would be very difficult for them to guide the students in the right direction. I might take you up on setting up a poll for teachers. I am very curious as to what the results would be!


      1. I too often see images being used in high school assemblies that have absolutely no attribution. It’s possible that teachers are using sites like, but I think it sets a nice example to cite these sources too.


  3. Hi Lina, Thank you for this great post. Great idea to do a poll. And I love your infographic. It is beautiful and very informative. May I use it on my blog? I will of course give you credit. 🙂
    Thank you


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