Before Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, the ownership of literary and other written works wasn’t much of a problem for lawyers. The printing press and the proliferation of multitudinous copies of books and pamphlets eventually made the problems of ownership a legal matter, and publishers sought protection from the pirates of print.

Common law court decisions based on the property aspects of ideas made tangible through the printed word evolved into international copyright laws. But advances in technology, from Edison’s gramophone through digital video diskettes, have kept lawmakers busy updating the statutes and the courts filled with lawsuits seeking to refine the concepts of intellectual property and piracy.

As if figuring out who owns the shows broadcast through thin air as radio or TV waves wasn’t tough, tossing computers and the internet into the mix really ratcheted up the complexity. Never before had so many people had so much access to so much useful information in such easily reproducible and reusable form. The web is the world’s largest library and video and record store–it grows exponentially and is open 24-7. Who owns what on the web and how to defend the rights of ownership are among the most difficult legal and technical challenges facing the copyright community.

The recent Supreme Court decision in the case of New York Times Co. v. Tasini splits one of the hairs of legal ownership of digital works. Freelance writers sell their writing to magazines and newspapers for a fee. Some authors discovered that their articles were not only being published in newspapers and on web sites, but also were being stored in the publisher’s electronic database. The Supreme Court decided that these “vast pools of information” were not simply revisions of the original work, but represented a whole new form of the work. The essence of this case is that publishers will have to be more careful in how they define the rights they are buying. But there is a much bigger lesson here for educators.

Although most students are (I hope!) taught that copying material from a book in the school library without footnoting or otherwise crediting the author is plagiarism, it is rare for a school to require a student to sign a pledge not to do it. But most acceptable-use policies (AUPs) include a specific prohibition against the “cut and paste” research that is so temptingly available on the web. Why the AUP caveat? Because it is so easy to steal someone else’s work on the web. A few clicks, and huge chunks of a student’s term paper or book report are done.

If your school’s AUP is silent on plagiarism from web sources, you should, of course, amend it accordingly. But it is even more important to make sure that before a student first clicks on the internet browser icon, there has been a clear lesson on the rules and ethics of research and plagiarism. The inclusion of the AUP pledge is a good start, but schools also need to train their teachers how to enforce the policy and make it clear that cutting and pasting without attribution is wrong and relatively easy to catch.

Do your teachers know how to search the web for plagiarized material? Many student cheaters are so blatant in their pilfering that typing the first sentence of an ill-gotten term paper into a good search engine (like has revealed the source of their perfidy in nanoseconds. Usually a teacher can tell when a student’s work is just “too good to be true” and can plug in the overly perfect phrases into a web crawler to uncover the real source.

Remember to check your lesson plans to make sure you instill the clear idea in each student’s mind that if they can find it on the web and use it in their homework, a teacher can find it on the web just as easily and compare the student’s work with the source.