Teaching Copyright to Teenagers

November 2006

Classroom debate explored why many young people view piracy as socially acceptable. (Photos.com)
Classroom debate explored why many young people view piracy as socially acceptable. (Photos.com)

How does one set about teaching a classroom full of teenagers about copyright? Lecture them on the legalities, and you will be met with yawns. Quote financial figures showing music industry losses caused by downloading, and the response will be cynical. Preach ethics, and you may be told that you are out of touch with the "sharing generation."

In a project undertaken as part of a Masters degree in Intellectual Property (IP), sponsored by the Spanish PRISA media group and the Carlos III University in Madrid, a group of graduate law students took themselves into the classroom to discover what sort of approach makes this challenging audience sit up and listen. Two of the students, Raquel Pérez Alberdi from Spain, and María Valeria Rapetti Tizze from Uruguay, described their observations to WIPO Magazine.

"In Spain, 99 percent of young people between the ages of 15 to 19 listen to music according to surveys published in the 2005 Yearbook of Cultural Statistics," explained Ms. Rapetti. The students observed widespread illegal copying among teenagers, combined with little understanding and much misinformation about copyright. So it seemed clear, they concluded, "that educating this age group about the legal, ethical and economic issues underpinning copyright is critical in reducing piracy."

Putting a human face on copyright

They began by looking at what they saw as some key questions: Why do so many young people feel that music or images in digital form should be free, while accepting that it must be paid for in physical format? What is the source of the antipathy commonly expressed by young Spanish consumers towards collective management societies? Why is there a perception that IP in the music industry only serves the interests of big businesses?

Their research suggested that young people tended to view piracy as socially acceptable largely because it seemed impersonal. People had little sense that their own actions in downloading or copying music illegally would impact on the individual creators and industry workers whose labor went into producing each song.

The challenge for IP education, they concluded, was to present copyright in such a way that young consumers could relate to those whose livelihoods depended on it. This meant getting away from popular images of "fat cat" record companies and stars with million dollar hits. Instead, the face of copyright should be represented as the vast majority of ordinary artists and musicians who depend on their copyright-related earnings in the same way that any other worker depends on being paid for his or her work. The picture should be widened to include the vast numbers of people who work in the copyright-based industries – be it in record shops, night clubs, CD manufacturing companies and so on. The sort of people, in other words, whom the average school student would know.

Ms. Pérez and Ms. Rapetti explained how they devised lesson plans and took them into classrooms to test them out. To spark discussion, they also showed video footage of a call on a bar-owner by a representative of a Spanish collective management society. The former’s indignation at the notion that she should pay royalties on music she played in her bar, and the representative’s explanations as to why this was so, provoked lively classroom debate, which led in turn to a clearer understanding of the role of collective management.

Over the following months, the Masters students drew on their experiences to compile a comprehensive copyright teaching manual for use in secondary schools. They hope thereby to improve understanding among this avid group of music consumers of how copyright helps to keep the music playing.


Elizabeth March, WIPO Editorial Staff, Communications and Public Outreach Division

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