To stem the influx of peer-to-peer file-sharing lawsuits cropping up in schools, the American Library Association (ALA) plans to roll out a nationwide curriculum designed to help students navigate the murky waters of copyright law. The program is a direct response to similar campaigns launched by the software and motion picture industries, which have been criticized by some educators for dwelling too much on the penalties of piracy and not enough on students’ rights under the law.

Though it’s still in the early stages of planning, Rick Weingarten, director of the ALA’s office for information technology policy, said the association likely would distribute guides and other materials to school librarians nationwide during the coming school year. This fall, organizers will conduct focus groups with students to get a better sense of how kids interact online.

“To me, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to develop a program if you don’t understand how kids communicate,” he said. The end result most likely will be a series of comic books designed to teach students the dos and don’ts of internet file sharing and intellectual property law.

The ALA’s motives are twofold. First, said Weingarten, the library association felt it had a civic responsibility to build awareness about the issue. “Libraries sit right in the middle, where a lot of people come to access information–much of which is copyrighted,” he said.

But Weingarten added there was more to it than that. “Copyright is a very, very complicated issue,” he explained–one that students have learned about primarily through materials distributed by anti-piracy groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Recoding Industry Association of America (RIAA), and Business Software Alliance (BSA), all three of which have been criticized for leaning too heavily in favor of corporate interests.

Though the ALA is far from opposed to copyright protection in the digital age, Weingarten said, the association also is highly supportive of provisions in the law that enable the sharing of files and other digital materials for educational and research purposes, or what is known as “fair use.”

“In the library community, we recognize that there are a lot of positive aspects to peer-to-peer file-sharing technologies,” he said. Instead of focusing on the penalties that await copyright infringers, the ALA plans to provide a “much more balanced approach” to learning about the law.

“The way the content industry would like to present [the issue] is that it’s all black-and-white,” Weingarten said–though he acknowledged that shedding light on topics such as fair use, among other grayer areas of the law, “is not going to be an easy line to walk.”

The ALA chose to go the route of comic books because organizers felt it was something students could relate to, Weingarten said. “We wanted something in a narrative,” he explained. “Something kids would understand.”

It’s an idea that has worked in the past–for other groups.

In the spirit of McGruff the Crime Dog, the cartoon canine that encouraged children to “take a bite out of crime,” and Smokey the Bear, the friendly National Parks Service spokesanimal who reminded us that only we could prevent forest fires, the BSA has just introduced a cartoon ferret whose job it is to help guide America’s youth through the dense thicket of digital copyright infringement.

An extension of the organization’s three-year-old “Play It Safe in Cyber Space” campaign, the cartoon ferret will star in a comic book series distributed by children’s magazine Weekly Reader in January.

The storyline, which features the ferret as the “Copyright Crusader,” is designed to educate children about the importance of protecting and respecting copyrighted works such as software, music, games, and movies. The comic book and companion teacher’s guide will be mailed nationwide to fourth-grade teachers who subscribe to Weekly Reader and will be available for downloading at no cost at www.playitcybersafe.com, according to the BSA.

On Sept. 1, the software trade association opened an online competition for students to name the furry mascot. The nationwide contest runs until the end of the month and is open to fourth-graders through the association’s web site.

Laurie Head, the BSA’s director of education programs, compared the initiative to other recent public-service efforts, including the successful Truth campaign, which has played a decisive role in the decline of teenage smoking.

“We built this program to help instill proper cyber ethics in kids,” she said. “We want to educate them–to make sure they are using the internet appropriately and protecting copyrighted works. It’s all about being safe in an online world.”

Head dismissed criticisms that the BSA’s initiative was slanted in favor of corporate interest. Aside from teaching about the dangers of copyright infringement, she said, the program strives to help students sidestep the many pitfalls they’re likely to encounter in cyberspace. Topics include how to avoid contracting viruses from shared software and ways to prevent peer-to-peer file-sharing sites, like the popular Kazaa, from collecting information about your personal browsing habits.

“It’s not so much about business as it is about protecting kids,” Head said. “In the end, the message we want to get out there is one of respect.”

Other trades associations also have tried their hand at copyright education.

Last fall, the MPAA sponsored the “What’s the Diff?” campaign in association with Junior Achievement (JA), a national organization dedicated to preparing students for real-world success. Like the BSA’s effort, the curriculum–which includes hands-on materials, classroom activities, and take-home assignments–was intended to foster a culture of responsible digital citizens.

“The goal of the program … is to help students understand that illegally downloading or duplicating copyrighted material is no different than walking into a store and stealing it,” said a statement on JA’s web site.

As part of the initiative, participating students were asked to write an essay that convinces their peers that “file-swapping” is not only illegal, but fundamentally wrong. Last year, more than 750 prizes were distributed to those students whose arguments were deemed most compelling. But the program’s debut drew sharply mixed reviews in schools (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4726).

No matter the curriculum of choice, educators and industry experts agree, an urgent need exists for more copyright education in schools.

“I believe that most educators want to do the ‘right’ thing but all too often are unaware of even the basics around copyright, especially in electronic media,” wrote Keith Krueger, head of the Washington-based nonprofit Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), in an eMail message to eSchool News.

His concerns are echoed in research. A recent poll conducted by Harris Interactive, in conjunction with the BSA, stated that while almost all students admit to pirating copyrighted music and movies off of the internet, only 29 percent worry that the act is wrong (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5165). Also alarming: Only 18 percent of students said they learned about protecting digital works from their teachers.

With the passage of the TEACH Act, which sought to extend fair-use protections to copyrighted materials in the digital realm, Krueger said awareness is more important than ever.

“Unfortunately, many of the materials [under] copyright that are available for educators–including ones that are directed at students–have been produced by companies and/or trade groups with more emphasis on what you cannot do than on what you can,” he wrote.

For students and teachers, it’s about more than avoiding potential lawsuits. “With the new technologies, anyone–no matter how young–can be a publisher,” said Keith Kupfershmid, vice president of intellectual property, policy, and enforcement for the Software Information and Industry Association (SIIA). While it’s important to avoid the legal pitfalls of the internet, he said, it’s equally important for students and teachers to protect their own digital works from online piracy.

Though the SIIA said it had not seen the curricula offered by other groups, executives said they would encourage schools to explore several different approaches to copyright education in an attempt to expose children to both sides of the debate.

“Anybody who wants to take a positive step forward in helping educate our students–we think that’s wonderful,” said Kupfershmid, adding that it’s important for students to understand both “the academic and industry perspective.”

CoSN’s Krueger agreed. “What is urgently needed is a balanced approach that educates around fair use and appropriate uses of media in schools,” he wrote.

Links:

American Library Association
http://www.ala.org

Business Software Alliance
http://www.bsa.org

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

Junior Achievement
http://www.ja.org

Motion Picture Association of America
http://www.mpaa.org

Software Information & Industry Association
http://www.siia.net