Why copyright education is a fundamental part of digital and information literacy

copyright education and information literacy

Jane Secker and Chris Morrison are on a mission to make copyright engaging, fun and empowering. Here, they share their experiences of working on the UK Copyright Literacy Survey and their thoughts on the importance of understanding copyright education in the context of digital and information literacy.

Jane: It's always made sense to me to view the copyright education I do as part of my wider work in digital and information literacy. However recently that has been brought more sharply into focus since teaming up with Chris Morrison, Copyright Licensing and Compliance Officer at the University of Kent.

We worked together on the UK Copyright Literacy Survey which was circulated to librarians, information professionals and those in the cultural heritage sector last December. Over 400 people completed the survey which is a fantastic response rate and far higher than in the four countries who ran the survey in the first phase. 

I first heard about this survey in October 2014 at the European Conference on Information Literacy. Tania Todorova was presenting data comparing copyright literacy in France, Croatia, Bulgaria and Turkey and I was surprised by some of her findings. She suggested knowledge of copyright amongst librarians was relatively low and only 15% of institutions had a copyright officer.

I was intrigued and felt certain through my work in the copyright field (on LACA and the UK Copyright Working Group) that the picture might be better in the UK. When the researchers put out a call for other countries to participate in the next phase of the survey I was immediately keen to take part and spoke to Chris about whether he would like to help me. 

The research coincided with some work we were doing in association with Naomi Korn who had been commissioned by SCONUL to run training for UK librarians in the higher education sector on the changes to copyright brought in last year, including several new educational exceptions.

Chris had an ambitious plan to develop a copyright card game that would be an engaging and fun way of learning about copyright and certainly a change in style to the workshops I've done in the past. I've been running training for CILIP on copyright and e-learning and have tried to include lots of discussion and hands-on activities but always found that copyright, like referencing doesn't naturally lend itself to fun!

Chris had other ideas and in fact teaching copyright in an engaging way can completely transform your approach to it! Rather than focusing on the compliance aspect, or telling people what they can’t do, the game makes understanding copyright a challenge, and also helps people to realise there aren’t always right and wrong answers! It always surprises me that more librarians who teach information literacy are not involved in copyright education and in fact seem to be almost fearful of the subject.

This came out in the survey findings from UK librarians across the sectors that Chris and I have been analysing, where copyright often remains the preserve of one or two specialists in an organisation. However, increasingly when running research support activities, promoting open access and open education, surely all librarians need to have a greater confidence in their role as a copyright expert. 

Chris: I would describe my professional background as copyright administration and have only been working in the library and education sector for the last six years. I’m therefore relatively new to the concept of information and digital literacy but since working with JaneI’ve been thinking about the resistance there might be to thinking about copyright education.

Might people think it too rule-based, too arcane, too abstract and theoretical or perhaps even (through taking a particular ideological position) irrelevant? I think all of these positions are entirely understandable, but given UNESCO’s belief that information literacy“empowers people in all walks of life,” I think they miss out on something really important.

Copyright is the Enlightenment’s attempt to codify a set of behaviours around creation and sharing of expressions of human knowledge and art for the good of society. The first copyright law (Statute of Anne 1709) was “an act for the encouragement of learning” which was made necessary through the creation of information technology (in this case the printing press). Over the years this legal codification has changed to reflect the available technology but this is isn’t a one-way process.

Laws and social practices are the background context which determine what technologies are developed and adopted, but likewise the ways in which technologies are adopted impact on public policy and the activities of actual people. These relationships are complex and although sometimes difficult to make sense of, define who we are as a species as it exists in civilisations.

The element of this that I’ve been thinking about is the process and the art of codification. Written language is a code which people need to learn in order to take part in the modern world. No one would deny that literacy is a fundamental skill which everyone should have.

Recent public education policy has talked about the need for children to learn computer coding at school to equip them for life in the 21st century. The debate on whether this is really useful or just another fad continues to rage. However I think that having an innate understand of the way computers and computer networks work is hugely important and this is a fundamental part of digital literacy. You don’t necessarily have to have what people in the late 20th century would call “IT skills”, but you do need to what Jisc now term ‘digital capabilities’ and be able to think through the way that digital content and communication tools work in order to get the best out of them and avoid pitfalls.

Navigating copyright in the digital world can present an uneasy intersection of two types of codification: the codified laws that say what you ought to do (on pain of litigation) and the technological systems that either tell you what you can/can’t do (‘computer says no’) or track what you do in order that you might get found out after the event (‘gotcha!’). However in either sense you have these two types of code that you have to interact with and have to understand even though you may not be a computer programmer or a lawyer.

After reading Kevin L Smith’s thoughts on framing information literacy it occurred to me that even people who wouldn’t regard themselves as particularly knowledgeable about copyright understand implicitly the rules that govern if and how copyright content is made available. Understanding copyright in the context of digital literacy allows people to develop their explicit comprehension of access to information and knowledge with reference to wider political, economic and philosophical contexts.

They don’t need to become experts, but having an understanding of why the copyright ‘code’ was developed and how it operates in various scenarios informs an enlightened and creative way of interacting with the world. In this sense it goes much further than just avoiding doing something “wrong” and becomes a tool of empowerment and social engagement.

Jane and Chris presented findings from their Copyright Literacy Survey in July 2015 at the Northumbria Conference on Performance Measurement in Libraries and Information Services. The high level summary of the UK Copyright Literacy survey is available online. Copyright the Card Game is availableas a free download from Jorum.


Secker with Chris Morrison, (2016) Copyright and E-learning: a guide for practitioners. Facet Publishing: London.


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