Definitions of Copyright: What Do They Know?

In this lesson, students will begin to explore the often-perplexing world of copyrights by defining the essential elements of U.S. copyright law. Beginning with the Copy Quiz game and a free-form class discussion, students will tease out collective and individual ideas about the rights of creators and users. Then students will be asked to reflect on their experiences making and using creative works online and write down the questions that they want answered by the end of the unit.

Notes for the Educator

Over the course of two centuries, copyright has evolved into a particularly complex body of law. But the essential concerns that led the Founders to include copyright in the Constitution but limit its scope are very much a part of the modern debate about copyright and its role in culture, commerce, creativity, technology, and learning.

Lesson 1 is designed to help you give students a framework and vocabulary for exploring copyright and technology in the subsequent lessons. The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) documents and the additional readings will help you respond to most student questions and identify discussion subtopics that will be particularly relevant to your classroom.

Additional Context

Copyright law is all about balance. Copyright laws give creators the right to be compensated for many uses of their works as well as the ability to control many uses of their works. However, those rights are limited in time and scope, in order to ensure that the public is able to access and re-use creative works in new and interesting ways. Thus, while copyright is often narrowly discussed in terms of restrictions, there are aspects of the law that exist to facilitate the rights and freedoms of (re)users as well as those of the original creators. These permissive aspects of copyright law include the fair use doctrine (which permits use of copyrighted material under many circumstances) and the public domain (into which copyright works "fall" when the copyright term ends) and are vital components of any discussion of copyright and responsibility online.

Objectives for Students

Activity Highlights

The Copy Quiz game is a fun activity that quickly relates the numerous situations where copyright law has an impact, such as peer-to-peer file sharing, blogging and other forms of online communication, research, and even homework.

For homework, the Copyright History Worksheet gives students questions to answer after completing the additional reading. The history-focused readings and questions build on the copyright concepts discussed in Lesson 1 and introduce the issues to be covered in Lesson 2: A Brief History of Copyright and Innovation.


For the Educator

For the Student (in-class)

For the Student (homework)

Additional Reading

Lesson Activities

  1. (20 minutes) Copy Quiz Game Show

    Place two chairs facing the students at the front of the class and ask the students to divide into two teams. Place a "true" sign on one chair and a "false" sign on the other chair. You will act as the game's host, asking questions from the Copy Quiz.

    Ask the two teams to form a line. Have the students at the front of each team's line answer a question by racing to sit in the correct chair. The student that first reaches the correct chair remains "in" and returns to the back of their team's line; the other student sits down and is counted "out." The game will naturally end as students are eliminated from the game or when you run out of questions from the Copy Quiz.

  2. (10 minutes) Start a discussion. Ask your students what they think when they hear these terms:
    • Copyright
    • Fair Use
    • Free Speech
    • Public Domain
    • File-sharing
    • Piracy
    • Plagiarism
    • Infringement
  3. (10 minutes) Using the three Teaching Copyright FAQs on copyright, fair use, and the public domain, as well as Cornell University's "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States" chart, walk your students through the legal definitions and terms of copyright law. Write the categories "Copyright," "Fair Use," and "Public Domain" on the board, and ask the students to brainstorm examples for each.

    Here are some examples for each category:


    • a textbook written by a professor
    • a book report written by a student

    Fair Use

    • using a magazine advertisement in a collage that criticizes advertising (parody and criticism)
    • recording a TV show so you can watch it later

    Public Domain

    • space photos taken by NASA
    • a photograph of Woodrow Wilson (c. 1912)
    • Shakespeare's plays
    • facts

    While taking suggestions from the class, be aware that the legal status of some uses is sometimes unclear. One thing that students may learn from this exercise is that copyright law results in some ambiguities that sometimes wind up decided in the courts.

  4. (10 minutes) Ask the class to come up with examples of ways that copyrighted works are used on the Internet. Prompt them to consider even the more mundane examples, such as newspaper columns, blog posts, and personal pictures on photo sharing sites.

  5. (10 minutes) Ask the students to describe some of their technology use:

    • What are your favorite websites?
    • What software do you use?
    • What are your favorite gadgets?

    Then ask them to write down some questions about copyright that they would like answered by the end of the unit. Collect the questions and save them for use in Lesson 5.


Students should read Siva Vaidhyanathan's article, "Why Thomas Jefferson Would Love Napster?" and Daniel J. Cohen & Roy Rosenzweig's "Digital History: Owning the Past: A Brief History of Copyright" articles and complete the Copyright History Worksheet in preparation for the history discussion in the next lesson.


Keep track of students' participation during the Copy Quiz game and during the discussion.

Extension Ideas

Create a "Copyright at the Crossroads" student newspaper with original articles, editorials and cartoons about the current legislative and cultural debate around file-sharing technology. The newspaper layout can be less formal if the students want to produce a photocopied version to pass out to the class.