'Copyright and Copywrong' by Katherine Bilsborough

27th January 2018

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that copyright has got nothing to do with you. It has! Whether you’re a teacher, a Director of Studies, a language school owner, a teacher trainer, a materials writer or an author, copyright is something that you should give some thought to and find out about. But while copyright is something that every one of us needs to know about, the level of our understanding lies across a broad spectrum. Publishers’ in-house legal advisers are at one end and those teachers who go into class with photocopied sets of best-selling books, unaware that they are infringing any kind of law, either morally or legally, are at the other end. Where do you lie on this spectrum? Do you really understand what’s right and what’s wrong?

Copyright means different things to different people. A recent attempt at crowd sourcing made this evident. In various ELT groups on social media I explained that I was going to be writing a blog post on the subject. I invited members to share any opinions or anecdotes. Those who had most to say were authors, some worried about loss of earnings and others frustrated at the lack of understanding of illegal practice. For instance there seems to be a general misunderstanding amongst many professionals that any text, image or video can be lifted from the internet and used if it’s ‘for educational purposes’. This isn’t the case. Teachers had less to say but while some stressed the need to teach their students the importance of respecting copyright laws, they simultaneously – and usually unwittingly – break the laws themselves. Copyright is a tricky business and even more so in this digital age where ownership is complicated and is subject to different legislation in different countries. The biggest problem seems to be with images where the most common practice for teachers needing a picture seems to consist of doing a Google image search and then copying and pasting whatever they find that fits their purpose.

Copyright and Teachers

Having a clear understanding of the ins and outs of copyright regulations and knowing what you can and can’t legally use is an important component of digital literacy. Teachers have a responsibility to get their heads around the whole matter of copyright so that they can pass on the information to their students. They’re never too young to start. Even young children understand that copying and stealing is against the rules. By infringing copyright rules yourself you are modelling inappropriate behaviour and inviting students to do the same. It isn’t OK to hand out class sets of photocopied units from a course book. Nor is it acceptable to download illegal .pdf versions of books from dodgy social media and websites. To make matters worse many of these illegal materials contain malware that end up corrupting the files and/or your computer.

Teachers should help their students understand regulations about copyright and which acts constitute misuse as well as how to attribute an original source for those items that can be shared.

Some guidelines

  1. Not all materials are free to use and share. Some are copyrighted and you need to follow guidelines if you want to use them.
  2. Materials that are copyrighted by their owners usually display the copyright symbol: © Others have a copyright byline. E.g. by Katherine Bilsborough.
  3. Many copyrighted materials have a Creative Commons (CC) license. This means they can usually be used but within certain restrictions. There are several categories of CC licenses, from the most accommodating which allows you to distribute and change the work, even commercially, as long as the original creator is credited, to those which signify something is free to download and share as long as the creator is credited but which can’t be changed in any way or used commercially. Each license has an icon or a series of icons that give a clear indication of what is and what isn’t allowed.
  4. One of the easiest ways to find images with CC licenses is to use the ‘Advanced image search‘ option in Google. The final menu allows you to select usage rights.
  5. The Creative Commons website also has a search engine which can be used to find texts and images. They also have a FAQ page and videos explaining what each kind of license means.
  6. There are some sites dedicated to sharing copyright free work. Two of the best sites for images are ELTPics and Pixabay.
  7. It’s fine to show students a video or to play an audio directly from its original source. It isn’t OK to embed the video or audio into your own materials. Think of it as being a bit like showing students a page from an original book or handing out photocopies of the page to all students.
  8. If you are in any doubt about whether a text or an image can be used in the way you wish to use it, contact the original creator and ask. In my experience people are often happy to let you use their work as long as they are attributed.
  9. The Edutopia blog has a round up of links to videos, articles and infographics about copyright and fair use for teachers.

Copyright and authors

These days there are hundreds of sites that act as resource libraries for illegal copies of hundreds of ELT books. As soon as one site is reported and gets closed, another one pops up in its place. The task of getting books removed from these sites is laborious and time-consuming. While many authors feel frustrated and angry others take the view that this kind of thing has been going on since the beginning of the printed word and there’s not much we can do to stop it. Author Gavin Dudeney takes the ‘Let he who hasn’t sinned throw the first stone’ approach. And he might have a point. Who hasn’t made a home-made cassette or CD of songs for a friend without stopping for a moment to think about the artist’s loss of earnings? Isn’t this the same thing? Should we take a stand and try to educate the offenders? Or should we just accept that copyright infringement is an intrinsic part of the digital world we are living in?

Last words on copyright from others

Professor Michael McCarthy suggests reading Chapter IV on Moral Rights in this Copyright, Designs and Patents Act from 1988. If you can get past the legal speak it gives lots of sound advice to authors about their right to being identified as the author of a piece of work.

Dorothy Zemach told me that while she was speaking at a conference in a country where copyright infringement is rife, she discovered that teachers believed that if a .pdf of a book was found after a Google search, it was the publisher who had put it there.

Author Walton Burns told me about teachers he’d met who have copied course books almost verbatim into a notebook, just changing a few example sentences and then shared them with their students as if the materials were their own.

One teacher asked author Kate Cory-Wright about the letter c on a page from a book they bought. They wanted to know whether it meant you could copy or you couldn’t copy.

Author Evan Frendo has got lots of copyright anecdotes. Once he was asked to autograph photocopies of his books in a teacher training session. Another time, after giving a copy of one of his ESP books to a university dean, the dean told him that his books were popular and that this new level would be photocopied and distributed to all students and teachers that same day. Evan also found out that over 50,000 students at one university were using photocopies of his books. That’s a lot of lost income! My favourite, because of the warped sense of logic, is the university professor who told Evan that they appreciated the fact that he made his books copyright, understanding this meant ‘the right to copy’! And finally, at one large ESP conference Evan was told that photocopies of his books were on sale at the publisher’s stand at a cheaper rate than the original versions.

No matter how obvious the idea of copyright is to some of us, it’s clear that there are a lot of people who are misinformed or very confused.

Katherine Bilsborough is a freelance ELT author and teacher trainer. She has written more than thirty coursebooks for many of the top ELT Publishers as well as online courses and mobile learning materials for the BBC and the British Council. She writes monthly lesson plans for www.teachingenglish.org.uk and is the author of ‘How to write primary materials’, published by ELT Teacher 2 Writer.