Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Copyright -- or today, copywrong

This morning somebody posted the following story on the Quiltart list:

My grandson is in the 2nd grade. Yesterday I was drawing in my art journal and he said he wished he had one to draw in so I gave him one... he sat there staring at it so I asked him what the problem was. He didn't know what to draw. I suggested he find a photo of something and try to draw it....for practice, just to see if he could make a drawing that looked like it. His reply? "I can't do that, Grandma, it's a violation to copy it, I could get in trouble!" I asked him where he heard that. His teacher is teaching 2nd graders about copyright laws.

Now what would the ordinary grandma respond? She would say “well, dear, copyright laws have to do with people selling their work. They have nothing to do with you copying a picture into your sketchbook. Don’t worry – of course this is OK. Artists all over the world for all of history have learned to draw by copying pictures into their sketchbooks. In fact, you could probably go to the museum and see some of them doing that today.”

But no, this grandma didn’t say that. The story resumes:

This restores MY faith to some degree in public schools... I sent his teacher an email today to thank her for getting this vital part of educating the masses started at an early age.

Hmmm. What to comment on first.

How about the fact that the teacher has obviously taught the kids wrong? If the nine-year-old thinks he can’t copy a picture from a magazine into his sketchbook, either the teacher told him the wrong thing or he seriously misunderstood her.

Of course, it’s not surprising that the kid (or the teacher) got it wrong. Copyright law is so complicated that even copyright lawyers can’t tell you with any confidence how a given situation is going to play out in court. And it is so widely misunderstood that people are ready to step up and tell the world that just about anything you can name is a violation of copyright. (Not to mention the fact that at least half of those people think it’s “copywrite.”)

But I wonder about the enduring consequences of the eight-year-old getting this wrong idea. Will he next refuse to copy a problem out of the arithmetic textbook to do homework or quote a line from a poem in his book report because it’s wrong to copy from a book and he could get in trouble?

Or how about the fact that the teacher has chosen, of all the complicated grownup things in the world to oversimplify and misrepresent to second graders, copyright law? Why not explain the tax code or NAFTA or the Medicare prescription drug plan, all equally relevant to children?

Or how about the fact that grandma thinks this is a good idea? She thinks that copyright law is a vital part of educating the masses at an early age? I’d settle for reading and arithmetic, and science and democracy  – and encouraging kids to draw in their sketchbooks rather than scaring them away from it.