Thursday, October 24, 2013

Of (Mickey) Mice and Copyright -- A Teachable Moment

John Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men in 1938.
First Edition Cover
75 years later, it is a book that school children still read. The tale is a powerful one and it has captured a place in the American literary canon.

With a little bit of searching, you could find a .PDF copy on the internet and download the text. With a little bit more work, that PDF copy can be transformed and distributed to a classroom of iPads. An entire classroom of children could be exposed to this character study of two men in the the early 20th century...for free

But -- and this is important -- that is illegal.

Interlude: Copyright Basics
  • Society values creativity. As John Keating said in Dead Poets Society (a movie that may have inspired more wanna-be teachers than the TFA), "...medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."
  • In order to encourage creative types to be creative, society allows said creative types to make money off of their work in a number of legally binding ways. This ownership of a creative work is called COPYRIGHT. (it's even in the constitution): 
"the Congress shall have power . . . to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." - Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8
  • Society also acknowledges that creativity spawns creativity. Thus, after a reasonable period of time, society deems that creative works should enter THE PUBLIC DOMAIN.
  • Society also finds that there are instances where the absolute control of a creative work can be outweighed by another benefit to society, such as education, critical review, or even for parody. In the United States, these are collectively called FAIR USE EXCEPTIONS.
  • How and when creative works become a public good is a subject of debate and is ultimately determined by a society's government (and the corporations who pay lots of money to provide opinions to politicians).
End Interlude

Steinbeck, who passed away in 1968, had sold the rights to this book to a publishing house which continues to make money off of the 2 million or so copies sold each year. The copyright was renewed in the 1960s and extended to a total of 95 years. Seven years ago, his family sued to win back the rights to the book.

By all current laws, the book enters the public domain in 2033. If by some strange circumstance it becomes unavailable (e.g. goes out of print), it can be used by schools because of an exemption in the current copyright law. That is unlikely to happen.

If classes want to read this book, the schools need to pay for it.

What about Educational Fair Use?
Educational Fair Use is awesome and powerful. It allows teachers and students to use excerpts of works for educational reasons and to incorporate a variety of copyrighted materials into presentations and lessons without needing to pay copyright holders for every single work.

But it is limited. It is limited by the amount used, by the nature of the original work, and the intent and purpose of the use. And it is limited by the impact on the market: If the only reason to make twenty copies, digital or otherwise, of an entire book is to keep from buying twenty copies of that book, fair use protection does not apply.


Interlude Two: What Does this have to do with Mickey Mouse?
Used proudly under Fair Use Guidelines
Mickey Mouse debuted in 1928. By the laws of that time, he would now be freely available for use. However, the US Congress has strengthened copyright protections and extended the length of copyright in such a way that the House of Mouse can sue anyone trying to put "Steamboat Willie" on a lunchbox until 2023.

The last major debate on this issue in 1998 was nicknamed the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act". Sonny Bono (he of "& Cher" fame) held the hands of that sweet, innocent corporation and proclaimed, "I got you, Babe" and secured big-D another 20 years of mouse-exclusive merchandise.

So while there is some hope that we can one day read the almost century old works of Hemingway or Steinbeck without paying a large per-book cost, the show is not over until the politicians are paid...and Disney has deep pockets.

End Interlude


We live in a world with easy access to all sorts of media. Freshman enter the #digcit class every day with the expectation that movies, photos, stories and ideas are readily available and should be free of charge. Put bluntly, they believe some stealing, while illegal, is not really bad.

When questioned, there are a number of reasons:
  • Movies are too expensive to buy
  • What if the movie is not good? then you just wasted your money
  • I want to watch it now, not when it comes out on DVD
  • Studios make so much money anyway. 
  • I am not the one who "stole" it. I just downloaded it.
  • etc, etc...
We as educators need to take a different tact than reinforcing the idea that copyright in the modern age is meaningless and that taking what you want because it is readily available is a digital right.

At the same time, we need to empower students to understand the way that corporations and politicians can change ideas and the laws that enact them in ways that may ultimately hurt society. We need to write to politicians and publish letters to the editor. We need to show students how to change the system by becoming active. Thus, I humbly offer the following template:


Dear Politician who Accepted Money from Disney, 
I know that it's hard to believe in this day and age, but schools don't have a lot of money. We have reduced the number of teachers, eliminated librarians, and practically dismantled the unions. But tests and pre-tests cost money and between Acuity and Lexiles, we're flat broke. 
We would like to teach a book called OF MICE AND MEN. Maybe you've heard of it. I think there's a movie. But due to copyright extensions that moved Public Domain from 28 years to 70 years after the author's death (or 90 years for corporate-owned works), this book is not yet available to be freely read on our iPads or downloaded from Project Gutenberg
So we were wondering if you could send us some of that Mouse Money you got for protecting Disney from the ravages of exploitation. We checked at Half-Price Books and a paperback printed in 1993 is only $5.36 cents. If you wanted to be awesome, we could get a digital copy to read on our shiny new iPads for $9.99 - this is the digital age after all.  
Thank you for your consideration,  
Teachers and students at a school trying to show respect for all laws, even the silly ones.

On Reflection...
The extension of copyright law has added to the cost of teaching Literature and may deny some students the opportunity to learn from certain works.

But Literature's loss could be Social Studies' gain. Rather than throwing our hands up in exasperation or giving in to social pressure that pretends everything on the Internet is public domain, we can explore the impact of laws and capitalism, of creativity and social good in a real and authentic way.

We can read...
We can debate...
We can analyze...
We can persuade...

As teachers, our job is to model to and advocate for our students. But more importantly, we should create environments where they can be advocates for themselves: Students should be able to take a stand and work to make their lives and the lives of others better.

We might be able to do that by stealing a book...
but we might be able to do it better by figuring out why it is stealing in the first place.


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