Downloading Is Mean! Content Industry Drafts Anti-Piracy Curriculum for Elementary Schools


Listen up children: Cheating on your homework or cribbing notes from another student is bad, but not as bad as sharing a music track with a friend, or otherwise depriving the content-industry of its well-earned profits.

That’s one of the messages in a new-school curriculum being developed with the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America and the nation’s top ISPs, in a pilot project to be tested in California elementary schools later this year.

A near-final draft of the curriculum shows that it comes in different flavors for every grade from kindergarten through sixth, to keep pace with your developing child’s ability to understand that copying is theft, period.

“This thinly disguised corporate propaganda is inaccurate and inappropriate,” says Mitch Stoltz, an intellectual property attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who reviewed the material at WIRED’s request.

“It suggests, falsely, that ideas are property and that building on others’ ideas always requires permission,” Stoltz says. “The overriding message of this curriculum is that students’ time should be consumed not in creating but in worrying about their impact on corporate profits.”

The material was prepared by the California School Library Association and the Internet Keep Safe Coalition in conjunction with the Center For Copyright Infringement, whose board members include executives from the MPAA, RIAA, Verizon, Comcast and AT&T.

Each grade’s material includes a short video, and comes with a worksheet for teachers to use that’s packed with talking points to share with students.

An entrepreneurial schoolyard artist finds her business selling dragon drawings is ruined after a fellow third-grader takes a photo with her cell phone.

In the sixth-grade version, teachers are asked to engage students with the question: “In school, if we copy a friend’s answers on a test or homework assignment, what happens?”

The answer is, you can be suspended from school or flunk the test. The teachers are directed to tell their students that there are worse consequences if they commit a copyright violation.

“In the digital world, it’s harder to see the effects of copying, even though the effects can be more serious,” the teacher worksheet says.

The material is silent on the concept of fair use, a legal doctrine that allows for the reproduction of copyrighted works without the rights holder’s permission. Instead, students are told that using works without permission is “stealing.”

“Justin Bieber got started singing other people’s songs, without permission, on YouTube. If he had been subjected to this curriculum, he would have been told that what he did was ‘bad, ‘stealing,’ and could have landed him in jail,” says Stoltz.

“We’ve got some editing to do,” concedes Glen Warren, vice president of the California School Library Association, the non-profit that co-produced the material with the Internet Keep Safe Coalition.

The Internet Keep Safe Coalition is a non-profit partnering with various governments and some of the nation’s biggest corporate names like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Target, Xerox, HP and others.

Its president, Marsali Hancock, says fair use is not a part of the teaching material because K-6 graders don’t have the ability to grasp it.

The curriculum, she said in a telephone interview, “is developmentally consistent with what children can learn at specific ages.”

She said the group will later develop material for older kids that will discuss fair use.

A 45-second video for second graders, for example, shows a boy snapping pictures and deciding whether to sell, keep or share them.

“You’re not old enough yet to be selling your pictures online, but pretty soon you will be,” reads the accompanying text in the teacher’s lesson plan. “And you’ll appreciate if the rest of us respect your work by not copying it and doing whatever we want with it.”

Hancock said the lessons were developed with “literacy experts,” and that some of the wording and kinks may still need to be ironed out.

She said the material has not yet been approved by the Center For Copyright Infringement, the group that commissioned the curriculum.

The Center for Copyright Infringement is best known for working with the White House and rights holders to forge an internet monitoring program with some of the nation’s biggest ISPs. That program provides for extrajudicial punishment of internet users who download copyrighted works without permission. Commenced earlier this year, the program’s punishment for repeat violators includes temporary internet termination and throttling connection speeds.

Hancock said the center is expected to be briefed on the proposed curriculum — dubbed “Be a Creator” — perhaps as early as this week.

The center’s executive director, Jill Lesser, told a House subcommittee Wednesday that she hoped the program would be integrated in “schools across the country.”

She testified that it’s best to attack piracy through youth education.

“Based on our research, we believe one of the most important audiences for our educational efforts is young people. As a result, we have developed a new copyright curriculum that is being piloted during this academic year in California,” according to her testimony.

“The curriculum introduces concepts about creative content in innovative and age-appropriate ways. The curriculum is designed to help children understand that they can be both creators and consumers of artistic content, and that concepts of copyright protection are important in both cases,” Lesser testified.

She said the CCI’s board is expected to sign off on the program soon, although she cautioned that it currently is in “draft” form.

“We are just about to post those materials in the next week or two on our web site,” Lesser said in a telephone interview.

Gigi Sohn, the president of Public Knowledge and an adviser to the CCI, declined to comment because she said she hasn’t seen the curriculum.

Overall, the curriculum’s message is anything but “sharing is caring.”

“We all love to create new things—art, music, movies, paper creations, structures, even buildings! It’s great to create — as long as we aren’t stealing other people’s work. We show respect for other artists and their work when we get permission before we use their work,” according to the message to first graders. “This is an important part of copyright. Sharing can be exciting and helpful and nice. But taking something without asking is mean.”

The fifth-grade worksheet introduces the Creative Commons license, in which rights holders grant limited permission on re-use. But even in explaining the Creative Commons, the lesson says that it’s illegal to make any copies of copyrighted works. That’s a message that essentially says it’s even unlawful to rip CDs to your iPod.

“If a song or movie is copyrighted, you can’t copy it, download it, or use it in your own work without permission,” according to the fifth-grade worksheet. “However, Creative Commons allows artists to tell users how and if their work can be used by others. For example, if a musician is okay with their music being downloaded for free — they will offer it on their website as a ‘Free download.’ An artist can also let you know how you can use their work by using a Creative Commons license.”

Warren, of the library association, agreed that it’s incorrect to tell students they can never use copyrighted works without permission, as the fifth-grade worksheet says. He said some of the package’s language has been influenced by the rights holders on the Center for Copyright Infringement.

“We’re moving along trying to get things a little closer to sanity,” Warren said in a telephone interview. “That tone and language, that came from that side of the fence, so to speak.”

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