The Power of Permission

Ah, copyright.

Is there any other single word that creates such confusion in the lives of educators? OK, maybe that’s dramatic, but copyright ain’t easy.

When faced with issues of copyright, questions abound: What is fair use? Am I OK to use this in class? What about online? Do I need to use 30% or 10% or 15% or 3.78645 pages or 13 words or the length of my finger? Am I going to get arrested? Who’s even checking these things, anyway? 

Friends, colleagues….I hear you. I’m feeling it, too. I certainly don’t know the exact answer. Copyright is delicate, and it’s based largely on opinion (in my opinion). Fair use is a judgment call, according to a set of qualifiers. Yes, there are rules, but the rules are vague. I mean, even the office of copyright hedges their bets:

The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission.

U.S. Copyright Office: “Fair Use”, June 2012

That being said, there is one golden, magical workaround to the Maniac Magee-worthy ball of string that is Copyright Law.  Say it with me, now: Permission. Permission trumps everything. Even the slippery U.S. Copyright Office says so:

The safest course is to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material.

Sounds great doesn’t it?

Reality check: Permission isn’t always straightforward. What about major music producers or filmmakers? What about popular and well-known media where the copyright holder isn’t clear? What if I ask and no one answers? These are valid concerns without a simple answer. However, when it comes to something you find on the web, particularly from a blog or other social media site, permission is where it’s at.

So what inspired this blog post? I asked permission today…and I got it. In minutes. 

I’m putting together a presentation on promoting eBooks. I found a rockin’ blog post with perfect images for my presentation. I wanted to host the presentation on SlideShare, and that can be muddy waters for fair use–posted publicly online, intending to use all of the images from the original post for a similar purpose…

So, I found the author’s email, which is quite easy to do on blog posts. I sent him an email that read:

Good afternoon:

I am creating a PowerPoint about promoting eBooks for school librarians, and was wondering if you would grant me permission to use your images from this blog post in my presentation:

The PowerPoint will be delivered to a group of school librarians in person, and then hosted on my organization’s website via SlideShare. Of course, I’ll provide a link to your site as a photo credit at the bottom of the PowerPoint slide and any other credits you would like. I would be happy to send you the link to the completed presentation.

Thank you!


And do you know what happened? He said yes. Just like that. Now I have permission. Shiny, beautiful permission. No nightmares of the copyright police knocking down my door. No cold sweats as I upload to SlideShare. It was easy! It was fast! It was fun! Bonus: I made a connection with someone who now knows that his blog is being read and helping people. Win, win, win, win.

Will it always work? Nope. Does it solve the copyright conundrum? Not even close. In fact, I asked a major company for permission to create a DVD from a VHS that was not available for sale in either format a few months ago, and I received a resounding NO.

That said–asking permission is an essential addition to your digital citizenship toolbox.

Now…imagine the power of teaching kids to do this. Send an email. Ask nicely. Be succinct, and state your purpose clearly. Persuade. Hello, Common Core Writing!

6-12 ELA Writing Anchor Standards, Production and Distribution of Writing 

Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with

-New York State P-12 Common Core Learning Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy, page 54.

So, if your kiddos find something online, and want to use it in their presentation/video/blog/etc, let them ask. Lead them through the process. And if they’re told NO? Help them troubleshoot, find something else, re-think and demonstrate perseverance. Now those are college- and career-ready skills.

Have you or your students asked for permission? How did it go? I would love to hear your experiences in the comments!

PS–Don’t forget about Creative Commons, and Royalty-Free resources, too. You can also check out additional copyright resources here.

Photo Credit: Flickr CC


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