Copyright Basics for Teaching

If you do not have a clear understanding of the U.S. Copyright law, especially that which applies to Internet resources, you might inadvertently be teaching your students to steal without realizing it. Here are the most basic facts you and your students need to know to avoid copyright infringement.

Copyright basics: what can or can’t be copyrighted

Copyright is literally the right to copy information. In most cases, that right belongs to the person who created and “fixed” the work in its finished form. Original literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works can be copyrighted. That covers a wide range of material such as poetry, novels, photographs, cartoons, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.

Material that is not original but copied from others cannot be given copyright protection.

Facts and ideas cannot be copyrighted, nor can operating procedures. However, the way facts, ideas, and procedures are expressed may be able to be copyrighted. That is why dozens of poems saying spring is the season of renewal can each be afforded copyright protection: each one expresses the basic idea differently.

Other items that cannot be copyrighted are discoveries and inventions, which can be given patent protection, and words, phrases, and symbols and designs used to identify the source of goods or services. Those can be given trademark protection.

Four mistaken ideas about copyright

Many people hear the term “public domain” and mistakenly believe that material that is on public display, such as material in blogs or websites, is OK to copy. That is not true. The term public domain has nothing to do with the accessibility of the material: it usually means any copyright on the material has expired.

Many people think that unless something bears a copyright notice they can duplicate and share the information freely. That is not true. Copyright legally exists as soon as a work is created and fixed in some tangible, perceptible form. It is not necessary for a work to be registered with the copyright office or even for the work to contain a copyright notice.

Some people mistakenly believe that they may copy material from the Internet as long as they don’t make any money from using the material. That is not true either.

Other people think as long as they share the material just with a few people, it is OK to copy it. That is definitely not true. Sharing copyrighted material with even one other person is an infringement of the copyright owner’s legal rights.

Fair use is limited to small portions

Under a provision of the copyright law called fair use, you or your students can legally reproduce a small portion of a copyrighted work in a review or a discussion of the work, such as a research paper. The law, however, does not define what a “small portion” is. Many scholars consider fair use to be less than 10 or 20 percent of the whole work, but copyright holders are not so generous.

It is safe to assume that anything which can be downloaded as a single item should not be copied and shared even with one other person without prior written permission of the copyright holder even if the name of the copyright holder is clearly displayed on the material. That means a single photograph, a single web page, a single PDF, a single cartoon or this single blog post should not be shared unless the user has secured the copyright holder’s permission in advance.

Hyperlink use is acceptable

It is acceptable to provide a hyperlink to copyrighted material without notifying the copyright holder in advance. That allows the copyright holder to retain control over the material, which is the purpose of copyright, while allowing others a way to incorporate the material in their work.

More information

The US copyright office website gives detailed information about the copyright law written in remarkably clear language. The site also has kid-friendly tutorial in comic-strip format, “Taking the Mystery out of Copyright.”

©2010 Linda G. Aragoni.

Short writing calms fears

My third semester as a graduate teaching assistant, one of the two sections of first year college writing I was assigned to teach was scheduled for 90 minutes starting at 4:15  p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.  

Nothing had prepared me for the problem I discovered the first session of that class.

The time slot attracted student athletes who needed Fridays for games and part-time local students who could adjust their work schedules to take the class. I anticipated this particular class might struggle more than most. The elimination of a third of the typical sessions would mean students would do 26 documents instead of the 39 I required from students who met three times a week. In addition, the twice-weekly students had more unavoidable demands on their time than were typical for first year students.

At the first class meeting, students, as always, filled the back seats first, with one exception: one male student took a seat at the front of the room beside the teacher’s desk. There was no one else within two seats of him. I thought he might have a vision or hearing problem.

I passed out the syllabus, gave my usual introduction about how in my writing courses everyone wrote every class period, and then asked everyone to take out a piece of paper and write for two minutes about what they hoped to get out of the class. When students bent to the task, the guy in the seat at the front broke out in a sweat and began to shake. He could barely hold on to his pen. He wasn’t acting. It was clear from his body language that he was terrified by the blank piece of paper.

I made an on-the-spot decision.

When the two minutes were up, I said, “Congratulations. You’ve just done your first timed writing.  From now on, you’ll be doing timed writing every class period so that you get used to forcing yourselves to write for short periods of time without stopping.”

Then I told students that probably none of them would go on to make their living as a writer, but that all of them would have to write. They wouldn’t have to write novels or poetry, but short, factual messages at work: a telephone message, a report about the failure of pump #2, or a request for vacation. I said I intended to prepare them for that kind of writing by requiring them to do at least one short piece of writing every class in anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes by the clock.

I said that just as what they had to write at work was about something at work, what I’d required them to do in class every class period would be related to the work they had to accomplish in the class to get a passing grade. I said I expected them to write short, factual, useful messages in a couple minutes at least once, possibly several times, during class. “I don’t expect you to produce art. I expect you to produce accurate, concise, clear messages fast. If you can do that, you will not only do well in this class, but you’ll be able to write well in your work and in other classes you take.”

Then I picked up the trash can and said, “I’m going to pass around the trash can. Unless you want me to read what you wrote or unless to keep it as a memento of this happy occasion, throw your paper in the trash. Next class, we’ll start learning how to write fast, accurately, concisely, and clearly.”

I don’t remember anything else about the guy who was initially terrified of a blank piece of paper. By the end of the semester, he exhibited no more anxiety than anyone else, and he must have done OK because no one in the class earned less than a C.


Why did I laugh?

Some teachers I knew once taught in a school that required its secondary teachers to teach students about sexual harassment. To fulfill that obligation, one teacher gave students some reading to do at home and then gave them a short answer test. I was privileged to read some of the students’ responses to the test.

Asked to define sexual harassment, one student wrote, “sexual hairassment is unwanted sexual jesters or sex inurwindow.”

The teacher who showed me the test responses couldn’t understand why I laughed.

I hope you will understand and laugh, too.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Informal writing prompt: no euthanasia on Facebook

A story on National Public Radio this morning suggested a 1-minute informal writing prompt about the correct placement of modifiers.

THE NPR report was about a 500-pound black bear called Hank the Tank who had broken into more than two dozen homes around South Lake Tahoe, CA, and was responsible for 152 incidents of  what the California Department of Fish and Wildlife call “conflict behavior.” Conflict behavior is what the CDFW says happens when a “severely food-habituated bear” like Hank breaks into people’s homes.

The NPR story reported that “the Bear Legacy, a local nonprofit that aims to protect bears, expressed its relief of Hank not being euthanized on Facebook.”

Informal writing prompt

Here’s how to turn that sentence from the NPR news story into an informal writing prompt. First, display and read the sentence:

The Bear Legacy, a local nonprofit that aims to protect bears, expressed its relief of Hank not being euthanized on Facebook.

DNA evidence shows Hand the Tank didn’t work alone. By Jonathan Franklin, February 24, 2022, NRP News

Next ask students to identify any parts of the sentence that doesn’t sound right to them. Tell them to write their response in no more than two sentences. Depending on your students’ ages, give them between 30 and 60 seconds to respond.

Depending on their literacy skills, students may notice any, all, or none of these problems:

  • The prepositional phrase on Facebook is misplaced. Facebook was where the bear protection group expressed their relief.
  • It is unlikely that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would have posted to Facebook a video of an animal being euthanized or even a photo of a euthanized bear.
  • Relief of Hank not being euthanized should be relief that Hank wasn’t euthanized.  

Wrap up the informal writing by giving students 30 seconds to write one thing they learned from examining the sentence.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Teach writing in 1 hour via military tactics

When I started teaching writing a half century ago, I could teach students all I knew about writing in an hour. When the hour was up, they knew as little about writing nonfiction as I did. Together we stumbled through figuring out how to write.

It took me three decades to figure out what actually worked for me (newspaper reporting taught me that).  But it was another decade before I learned how to explain to students how I wrote nonfiction.

I learned the explanation from a magazine article about military strategy.

I can almost hear you thinking, “Huh? Military strategy? What’s that got to do with writing?” It turns out, the two have a lot in common.

The article explained that military strategies must be phrased as a short series of  simple sentences presented in the order in which they must be accomplished if the goal is to be met. Each sentence specifies the outcome which its strategy will accomplish.

Strategies must use the simplest words and the shortest sentences that will convey the goal because every strategy has be understood by everyone from the private to the three-star general. Combat situations are like the College Board exams: there’s no one to consult if the strategy isn’t clear.

To understand strategies, think about films about World War II soldiers who have to accomplish some objective without the equipment they had been trained to use to accomplish that objective. The soldiers have to figure out what they need, how to make it or steal it, and how to keep their activities from being discovered. They are able to improvise because they were drilled to be able to know what they must make happen to achieve a specific outcome.

That military “do this to accomplish that” approach is what I found worked for teaching high school and college students how to write nonfiction texts. Here is my eight-step strategy:

Notice that the word write does not appear in the directions. That is not an oversight. I find students are much more comfortable making things and doing things than they are writing. They are much less stressed by producing a text than they are by having to write. (I suspect that military training doesn’t start by telling recruits, “today, we’re going to learn to kill people” for the same reason.)

A woman who had taught 40 high school English for 40 years before retiring and taking a job teaching college English, used my material in her 20th year of college teaching. At the end of the term (and of her 60-year teaching career),  she wrote me to say the strategies worked like magic. She presented the strategies and at the end of that period every student understood how to write nonfiction. They still had to practice to master the skill, but they understood how to write.

Once students understand how to write, you just need to have them practice every class period until they all can write. That’s not hard. You just walk around looking over shoulders, asking questions, and suggesting options. Do that enough times a week and you won’t need to go to the gym.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The reviews you are seeking are no longer available.

The books, however, can be found in libraries and bookstores.

Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer. Margaret Fox. ©2018. Random House. 220 p.

How the Post Office Created America: A History. Winifred Gallagher.©2016. Penguin Press. 326 p.

The Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us From Missiles to the Moon to Mars. Nathalia Holt. ©2016. Little, Brown.  337p.

Spot the misspelling

Two informal writing prompts using found messages

Today I have two informal writing prompts to show you that use messages posted in public places. The errors are easy for students to spot, which is not only good for their morale, but also shows them the importance of carefully rereading their messages for errors.

Begin by displaying one of the photos and reading aloud the message captured in it. (It doesn’t matter which you use first.) Then tell students to write one sentence in which they identify one error they noticed in the message and tell how to correct that error. Give students a half minute to do that.

sign has the word touch misspelled
What’s wrong with the note on this plant pot?

Follow the same procedure with the second photo, displaying it and reading what’s written. Again have students identify and correct the error in a single sentence. A half minute should be time enough for students to do that.

grocery store bags make dumpster mess
Is this an effective message?

If you keep your eyes open and a cell phone with a camera handy, you can grab items like these regularly. They take very little class time, but they make students aware of the importance of re-reading their work to eliminate silly mistakes.

(Another day could make the “shute” message into an assignment aimed at getting students to write a message that accomplishes a single objective.)

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

How to teach writing better

How well you teach writing to teens and adults boils down to whether you use practices that facilitate students’ learning or whether you use practices that either don’t help students develop writing skill or actively inhibit their developing writing skill.

Writing isn’t learned in the same way a subject such as history is learned by accumulating facts and concepts and making them fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Students certainly have to master some facts and concepts, but a student only learns to write when that students puts the pieces together to produce an image that looks like the idea in that student’s mind.

person at start of path to distant place

Choose best practices instead of poor ones

You facilitate students’ mastery of writing by choosing teaching practices that help all students learn to write. Below are what I think are the top 10 most important choices you can make as a writing teacher if you want all your students to become competent writers:

Number 1: Concentrate on teaching your average students. Don’t focus just on your best students. Average students will make up the majority of your students. Your best students will need little, if any, help. The poorest students require short periods of help frequently and positive reinforcement for small successes.

Number 2: Coach and mentor all your students. Don’t coach and mentor only your best students.

Number 3: Give every student individual attention. Don’t concentrate your attention on your presentations. You can accomplish a great deal in a one-minute chat with a student.

Number 4. Teach for realistic tasks. Don’t teach to artificial tests.

Number 5. Focus on having students learn to write. Don’t focus on having students enjoy class.

Number 6. Teach to authentic tests. Don’t teach to bubble tests.

Number 7. Evaluate according to students’ writing skill. Don’t evaluate by students’ enjoyment.

Number 8. Stress interconnections of content. Don’t teach pieces of content in isolation.

Number 9. Demand competence from all students by the course end. Don’t accept not-yet-competent work from some at the course end.

Number 10. Respond to student writing. Don’t correct student writing.

There are other practices that will make it easier for you to teach a group of teens or adults to write competently, but I’ll save them for other days.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni