Copyleft Flickr image by kk+

In my own classroom, I fight the good fight every day, wrestling with students who want to use copyrighted music or images in their work. I’m writing literally here. I’m not afraid to throw a kid in a headlock for slipping the latest Owl City release into a slide show.


I realize, however, students are not malicious, thieving miscreants who don’t care about fair play or giving credit where credit is due. Actually, teenagers have an acute belief in honor and fairness.


Why, then, despite what I considered engaging, varied lessons on fair use and proper citation, do they continue to use copyrighted images and music without a mention of the sources? There are many explanations, but the simplest one — let me grab Occum’s razor here — is that it’s simple.

The majority of students, when looking for a picture, complete a Google Image search and then use the first few shots they find. It’s so easy. Also, every kid already has music he or she likes in iTunes, so they go to this familiar place when creating projects. These products are user-friendly, so students use them. As I teach students to care about copyright, then, I look for simple tools that will help them create interesting work without requiring much more effort than a simple Google search. In sharing these tools with fellow teachers, I hope I make it easier for educators to help students care about copyright. Headlocks, while entertaining, don’t work.


One stop searching through CompFight: This school year I ask all my students to begin their image searches at It’s the simplest tool to use. First, I have them set a filter that returns only images with a Creative Commons license; they simply click on the choices to right of the search window.This tool searches Flickr, returning only images labeled for reuse. Students can achieve the same results by manipulating the advanced settings in Google or Flickr, but they have to set these parameters each time they search. Once the filter is set at CompFight, it will stay at that default, so when students return to the site, they don’t have to complete extra steps. It’s simple — and, therefore, students use it more readily.


Advanced Settings in Google: Even with a handy tool like CompFight, many students still go to Google. I don’t fight them on this point. (I have never actually thrown one into a headlock). Instead, I take a few moments to show them how to adjust the search in advanced settings (to the bottom right of the search window). In advanced settings we make adjustments to Usage Rights:

Flickr-The Commons: This section of Flickr includes historical photographs that are O.K. to use because the copyright has expired, or the copyright is unknown. The images, then, are part of the public domain. (But all copyleft images still need citation. You have to beat that drum all year long). My students and I find quirky and stunning images here.


The Morgue Files: The site’s slogan, “Free photos for creatives by creatives” sums up its ethos. It’s another site filled with visually arresting, high quality images, and for the purposes we use images in the classroom, no copyright restrictions are violated.


Stock Exchange: This site is my favorite source for “copyleft” images. The search function is easy to use, and when I find an image I particularly like, I look at that particular user’s library. Inevitably I find other stunning images that work well for my project. Students don’t use it as much, though, because it requires a log-in name and password to access the larger files. It’s a free log-in, but these extra steps annoy many students.


Most of my students now use copyleft images automatically. At the very least, when they do slip and use copyrighted images, they feel some shame; cry out, “I forgot!”; and switch out the copyrighted material for copyleft work. Royalty free music, however, is a more difficult “sell.”


Incompetech Royalty Free Music: This database can be searched by theme and mood, making it very appealing to students. Getting students to use copyleft music is perhaps the most challenging obstacle I face. YouTube, however, has gotten so fast at removing illegal music that my students are now more consitent in searching for free-to-use tunes. This site is the simplest interface I’ve found. for Educators: Students don’t find this site as easy-to-use, but it is still worth a visit. Many very professional loops, stingers, and aural tags can be downloaded for free. Students always stumble to the pay-to-play section and get frustrated, but if they stick to the links at the top of the page, they can find many useful sound files.

Of course, students can always contact record labels to request permission rights. Last year, when making a video on child soldiers for an anti-slavery project, two students contacted Matisyahu and received permission to use one of his songs. Many others followed this example. Also, requiring students to create their own images and music is an excellent way to curb copyright violations. Once they’ve taken the time to create their own songs in Garageband, they are more likely to appreciate the creativity, hard work, and patience required to produce artful images and music. Then, they are less likely to use something casually or incorrectly.


Even with these easy-to-use tools, this lesson is one that requires gentle reminders and thoughtful repetition throughout the year. I’m even thinking about investing in a Lucha libre mask, if I can figure out how to tie it into the lesson.

Robin Neal

Educator at Beaver Country Day School

Robin Neal teaches English at Beaver Country Day School, a progressive, independent school in the Boston area. He has also taught in public and international schools and has experience at all levels from grades 6-12. He is particularly interested in technology in the classroom and how it can be used to create more dynamic, authentic educational experiences.