Taming copycats

Andrea TomkinsThe issue of copyright is one that many of us probably know a little bit about.  Copying is stealing – and stealing is bad - but it can still be a grey area in a social media world which is very PRO sharing.

We know that copying a movie is wrong (thanks to the lengthy warnings that precede every DVD we watch) but sharing the trailer on Facebook is allowed and even encouraged.

There seems to be this pervasive belief that if it’s online, it must be free for the taking. This is simply not true, and in my experience a lot of people don’t truly understand or even give this much consideration.

As a writer and photographer who makes a living creating content, the idea of someone taking my work and profiting from it makes me angry, so perhaps I’m a little more sensitized to this issue than other people. 

Many tweens and teens have a very strong sense of compassion and a well-developed barometer for what is fair in this world. That’s why I framed one of our recent conversations as an “imagine if it happened to you” scenario.

My husband once bought me a small print from Etsy.com (an online marketplace of independent artists and crafters) and it’s currently on display in our home. One day my daughter asked if we could photocopy it for her.

“Sure,” I said, not even thinking. “What do you want it for?”

“I’d like to give it to my friend,” she said.

And that’s when I realized I’d made a mistake with my quick answer.

Our daughter is an aspiring artist and has actually sold her work to others, so I was able to frame the situation in terms she could understand.

“Remember how you sold your drawings at the school craft fair? What if someone took a picture you drew, copied it, and started selling it? How would that make you feel? Is it fair?”

She understood that it wasn’t, and we talked about how she’d feel cheated and angry if she ever found out if someone was profiting from her hard work.

To take credit for something you didn’t create is wrong, whether it’s a case of copied artwork or something as seemingly innocuous as a photo on Instagram (which is big in our lives right now). Kids are pilfering photos all over the place – taking screen shots, cropping them, and posting them as their own. It’s done in the name of fun, but it’s not right.

You can like it and comment and share it, but if you didn’t take the photo, it’s not yours. In fact, Instagram’s community guidelines address this very issue in a way that is very clear, easy to understand, and refreshingly devoid of legalese. (I have a whole big post about Instagram coming up. There’s plenty to talk about here!)

Maybe we should talk about ways parents can hit this issue home.

I’m a big fan of talking to our kids when the time is right. It will come up the first time you see your child copying photos from Google images for their homework assignments.

You can also research news items about ordinary people fighting a battle over copyright infringement.  It might be a good idea to focus on an aspect of copyright that’s of interest to your child and use these stories to start a conversation. For example:  

Soon enough you’re realize that the copyright conversation can take you in all kinds of fun directions: attribution, counterfeiting, parody, plagiarism, fair dealing, Creative Commons and trademark infringement. Just the other day we had a family conversation about why, if you opened up a pet store, you probably couldn’t get away with calling it STARBARKS.  (“Well kids, as you know there’s a coffee shop called Starbucks, and they probably have an army of lawyers…”)

Overall, I think copyright is a fairly simple thing to teach children of all ages and it’s easy enough to put into terms they can understand.

  1. Just because it’s online, it doesn’t mean you can take it and use it.
  2. For things you are allowed to use, always give credit to the person or company who owns the copyright. (There are exceptions, to find out the specifics, visit the Intellectual Property section on the MediaSmarts website.)

If you’re talking to your kids about copyright, somewhere in that conversation you should use the word “stealing,” because it’s the kind of word that makes an impact. The interesting thing is that a lot of kids don’t see copyright infringement as stealing because there’s no physical object involved.   

Here’s the point: if we want to raise model citizens, we must to model good behavior. Just like we wouldn’t steal gum from the candy store (and would punish our kids if they ever did) we should not download music, movies, and television shows illegally. Otherwise how can we expect our children to understand that it’s wrong?

How do you handle this issue with your children? I’d love to hear if you’ve had this discussion with your kids and how you’ve chosen to explain it.