Universal Copyright Literacy?

Chris Morrison talking at the opening panel of the IFLA WLIC Copyright Education in Information Literacy Programs meeting – photograph by Dolnośląska Szkoła Wyższa

As part of the opening panel at the Models of Copyright Education in Information Literacy Programs in Poland on 23 August I presented my and Jane’s definition of copyright literacy from the second edition of copyright and e-learning:

“Acquiring and demonstrating the appropriate knowledge, skills and behaviours to enable the ethical creation and use of copyright material.”

– Secker and Morrison, 2016, p.211

We thought long and hard when coming up with this definition – not just to link it with the concept of information literacy, but also make it broad enough to apply to the lives of people outside of the information profession and the educational system. There was lots of excellent discussion at the meeting in Poland about the inclusion of copyright education in library and information science (LIS) programmes. However, I thought it would be interesting in this post to explore how the concept of copyright literacy relates to everyone who comes into contact with copyright material, not just the librarians and educators involved in that particular conversation. Or, to put it more bluntly “what is copyright literacy and who cares?”.

So in order to answer that question and to propose a concept of “universal copyright literacy” I thought I’d start by looking at the definition to show what we were getting at:

The “acquiring and demonstrating” part shows that understanding copyright doesn’t come naturally – it does need to be learned – but that it only really make sense when it’s put into practice. There is much about the way that copyright works which is counter-intuitive and idiosyncratic, meaning it is also necessary to apply a large amount of common sense. To that extent the “knowledge, skills and behaviours” that the copyright literate person displays should be “appropriate” not just in “ethical” terms but also in relation to any individual’s goals. In essence it’s not necessary to be a lawyer to understand, or help others understand how best to deal with copyright material.

The “knowledge, skills and behaviours” part is what makes it a literacy – a cultural and communicative practice that helps people by “enabl[ing]” them to do something that they would otherwise be excluded from or fall foul of. The use of the term “ethical” reflects the importance of copyright as a system of creating fair rewards to authors as well as encouraging the progress of science and the useful arts (as our US friends would say – isn’t it great to have a constitution with a copyright clause in it?). I took the opportunity to check our bias at this point – we try to be as inclusive as we can on copyrightliteracy.org and via @UKCopyrightLit but we do tend towards an open, copyright minimalist approach rather than a proprietary, copyright maximalist one. That said, the “ethical” component doesn’t prescribe a particular ideology and we’ve always encouraged an inclusive and non-binary approach to copyright conversations.

We included both “creation” and “use” to reflect that everyone is now a creator and user of copyright material depending on the context, and in many cases is both at the same time. And finally we chose the word “material” in order to avoid legal terms such as “works” or “subject matter” as well as the negative connotations of the word “content” (i.e. the commodification of creative works through information technology).

So having looked at our definition where do we go from here? How might we continue this conversation in order to test whether copyright literacy exists outside of the minds of librarians and university employees? I propose using the four areas I used when talking about the tools and strategies we have been pursuing in the UK: Communities, Engagement, Research and Education.


Members of the UK Copyright Literacy Community: Monique Ritchie, Jane Secker, Chris Morrison, Neil Sprunt and Kate Vasili

So in considering any literacy you need to start with people. Who are the individuals and what are their identities, which professional groups are they part of and what are their motivations and constraints? I reported on the work we’ve been doing in the UK to develop our community of higher education copyright specialists. A fundamental component of that work is understanding the needs of teachers, researchers and students. We’re trying to develop our own thinking and practice so we can be more confident in the advice we give, and more creative in the way we communicate it. Hopefully that flows into the practice of the communities we support.

But to reflect on the highly positive response we’ve had to the idea of both institutional and regional Communities of Practice, I suggest that there is in fact a copyright literacy community and it has existed for many years. I think the value in giving it a name is to make us more confident, self-aware and able to communicate our goals and values with others. Which leads us on rather neatly to engagement.


One of the questions Jane asked in her opening presentation was how we link the practical and the political. How does the experience of people working in and with education and cultural institutions relate to the wider policy debate on what copyright is and should be? What role does copyright literacy play in supporting constructive dialogue between groups with different values? Is there a bridge between copyright culture and scholarly culture which needs to be bridged more effectively?

Chris Morrison on the panel of the 2016 Copyright Education Symposium in London – photograph by Josie Fraser

As well mentioning the UK Copyright Education Symposium, I made reference to our membership of the UUK/GuildHE Copyright Working Group and it became clear how lucky we were to have a group of dedicated practitioners in the UK negotiating our educational licences. Fellow panel members reported that similar negotiations in other countries were often undertaken by lawyers with little engagement with or awareness of the day to day activities of teachers, students, researchers and information professionals.

In his closing remarks Tomas Lipinksi noted that there was much still to discuss on this topic and I look forward to sharing our experiences with others.


International Copyright Literacy Researchers – Joumana Boustany, Tania Todorova, Jane Secker and Serap Kurbanoglu

The panel gave us a great opportunity to consider the findings from the multinational copyright literacy research project and discuss them together for the first time. Jane and I didn’t have time to formally present the findings of our phenomenographic research into librarians’ experiences of copyright, but we did stress the importance of having appropriate evidence to really understand the challenges that copyright presents and the best way to approach them. I was very interested to hear about Min Chou‘s research into US university copyright policies as I am about to begin my own dissertation project into something similar in the UK.

Jane and I have a raft of other research projects on the go and we look forward to sharing and discussing the findings at future events.


Chris and Jane present the Publishing Trap at the IFLA WLIC Copyright Education in Information Literacy Programs meeting Wroclaw, Poland – photograph by Ewa Rozkosz

Finally I was able to talk a bit about our playful approach to copyright education, taking along a deck of the new copyright card game cards and the prototype of the Publishing Trap (soon to be featured at the University of Kent Open Access Week). There was quite a lot of interest in making international versions of the cards so watch this space for future developments.

We were also really excited to hear about other ways of teaching people about copyright like Sara Benson‘s flipped classroom approach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the three stage copyright induction for postgraduates that Kathy Anders and Emilie Algenio have put in place at Texas A&M University, as well as the work of the Australian Libraries Copyright Committee which Jessica Coates shared with us.

But moving on from specific resources and approaches, it would also be interesting to consider what we call those copyright specialists who are responsible for communicating information about copyright. As Jane asked in her last post are they copyright officers or copyright librarians, or should they be regarded as copyright educators? On that note it was very interesting to hear Janice T Pilch’s challenging presentation on copyright education and neutrality. Can any education ever be said to be neutral and what is the role of critical thinking in considering copyright? Jane will be writing a follow up blog post considering the concept of critical copyright literacy soon.

Universal Copyright Literacy

So in summary I would suggest that this conversation about how to sustain copyright literacy programmes should look both within and outside the library, education and cultural heritage communities. Copyright impacts on librarianship and education, but also information professionals and teachers are in a key position to nurture constructive conversations about it and demonstrate good practice. I suggest that it is possible to formulate a concept of universal copyright literacy that would support broader copyright education initiatives. In order to do so we must consider which communities have an interest in copyright, think imaginatively about how best to engage with them, continue to review and undertake research to reveal the underlying truths and ensure those conversations are truly evidence based, whilst also recognising and taking full advantage of our responsibilities as educators.

I very much look forward to being involved in those conversations.

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