Standard Lesson

Copyright Law: From Digital Reprints to Downloads

6 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 50-minute sessions
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Looking at how and why copyright law has changed over time can help students better understand recent and current copyright disputes and the many perspectives involved in these ownership issues. In this lesson, students read about the history of copyright law, create a timeline of key developments in the law, and generalize about how and why it has changed. Students are then given a recent copyright topic and assigned a role. They look at the copyright issues from the perspective of the role they have been given and create persuasive arguments to convince others to see the issue from that perspective as well.

This lesson plan was developed as part of a collaborative professional project with the American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy and the American Association of School Librarians (AASL).

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

The U.S. Constitution provides the basis for all copyright law in America in Article I, Section 8, which gives Congress the power to "secur[e] for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Over the centuries since that right was established, the practice of intellectual and artistic property rights have evolved in complicated ways, influenced in particular by business desires to protect and extend revenue-producing texts and media.

As the Copyright Kids! page for Parents and Teachers explains, "It is important for anyone who creates and/or uses copyrightable materials-including kids-to understand what the U.S. copyright law permits, what it restricts, and why." This lesson explores the complex rights that protect words, images, and other media in the United States today by asking students to explore current copyright dilemmas in ways that lead to increased understanding of the issues.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).




  • This unit is designed to be co-planned and co-taught by the classroom teacher and the school library media specialist.

  • Ideally, students should have a basic understanding of copyright before beginning this lesson. If students need background information or a review of the subject, the classroom teacher and library media specialist can co-teach the ReadWriteThink lesson Exploring Plagiarism, Copyright, and Paraphrasing or have students review basic copyright law at the Copyright Kids! Website.

  • Before students begin their research, the library media specialist should lead a collaboratively-taught mini-lesson on effective Internet search strategies. Each assignment sheet contains suggested search terms, and educators may refer to the pre-selected Web resources contained on the Recommended Copyright Websites Web Page.

  • Print out one assignment sheet for each group. To provide a range of options, there will be more assignment sheets listed than groups, so that the educators can select assignment sheets for the topics and roles that will be most interesting to your students. Have at least two roles per topic assigned for debate and discussion.

  • Print out copies of the Persuasion Meter. Each student will need one copy for every two groups presenting.

  • Print out two copies of the Topics and Roles Outline for the educators to use.

  • Print out the Persuasive Argument Rubric. Educators will need one copy per student or per group, depending on whether they wish to assess individuals or the groups as a whole.

  • Educators should familiarize themselves with basic information about some recent cases involving copyright. Some information can be found at the Association of Research Libraries Website.

  • The library media specialist and classroom teacher should work together to test the Timeline Tool, ReadWriteThink Notetaker, and Persuasion Map interactives on your computers to familiarize themselves with the tools and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. Schools can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • generalize about the changes made to copyright law and predict future changes.

  • examine the role of perspective and persuasion in changing copyright law.

  • research a current copyright issue.

  • develop and present a persuasive argument about a copyright issue.

Note: In addition to the stated NCTE/IRA standards, this lesson is also aligned to the following American Association of School Librarians Standards for the 21st-Century Learner.

  • 1. Inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge

    • Respect copyright/intellectual property rights of creators and producers.

    • Follow ethical and legal guidelines in gathering and using information.

  • 3. Share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society.

    • Use information and technology ethically and responsibly.

    • Respect the principles of intellectual freedom.

Session One

Note: All instruction should be collaboratively delivered by the classroom teacher and library media specialist. In advance, agree upon lead and support educator/instructor positions for each session. Educators are strongly encouraged to alternate lead educator/instructor roles depending upon individual talents and expertise.

  1. Have students read about early English copyright law, considered the first copyright law in the world, in the "Some History" section of John Ewing’s article “Copyright and Authors.”

  2. Discuss the article as a class, guiding discussion with the following questions:

    • According to the article, what technological development led to the first copyright law?

    • Was early copyright law fair to authors?

    • How did the Statute of Anne change copyright law?

    • The author of the article argues a particular point of view about early copyright law. How does he think author’s rights were used by the stationers?

    • Who does he think benefited most from early English copyright law?
  3. Explain that U.S. copyright law originally was based on the Statute of Anne that students just reviewed. Read the provision about copyright in Article I section 8 of the U.S. Constitution: “The Congress shall have Power...To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries

  4. Discuss the provision as a class, using the following questions:

    • Based on the wording in the Constitution, what purpose did the writers see for copyright law?

    • Why might they have specified that the rights were to be secured for only limited times?

    • How does copyright law “promote the progress of science and useful arts”?

    • How might copyright law actually hinder that progress?
  5. Introduce the Timeline Tool to the class. Demonstrate how to enter a key event in the tool, using the dates for the Statute of Anne.

    1. Enter your name and title, and select “Date” as the unit of measure.

    2. Enter the year the Statute was passed as date.

    3. Enter “Statute of Anne enacted” as title.

    4. Under description, write a very brief description of the Statute. Include why the Statute was written.

    5. Demonstrate how to click “Next Entry” to enter a new date.

    6. Demonstrate how to click “Finish” to print the timeline.

  6. Divide the class into groups of three or four students. Have each group read A Brief History of Copyright. As they read, ask them to select a few key events in the history of copyright and enter them on the Timeline Tool. Encourage them to note why the change was made to copyright legislation in the “description” section of the tool.

  7. When students finish, allow them to share the events they selected and post the timelines in the classroom.

  8. Discuss the article and the events students noted on their timelines. Through discussion, students should recognize that copyright law tries to balance the rights of the author with the needs of society. Copyright law has changed through actual legislation and through court decisions that helped to define the law. Laws have been changed by various groups, such as authors, who lobbied for changes that would benefit them. Use the following questions to guide the discussion:

    • Do you notice any trend or types of changes that occurred frequently?

    • According to the author, what two important factors does U.S. copyright law try to balance?

    • What are two major means by which copyright law has been changed in the United States?

    • What are some significant changes that have been made to copyright law?

    • How or why did significant changes get made? Who instigated the changes?

    • The author of the article is a historian. How does this influence his perspective on copyright law?

    • Does he seem in favor of some of the recent changes? Why or why not?
  9. Ask students if they have heard of any major copyright disagreements in the news. Brainstorm a list of such recent copyright cases. Examples may include Napster, Google images and Google news, National Geographic’s reuse of photographs, and YouTube. Basic information about some recent cases involving copyright can be found at the Association of Research Libraries Website and on the Recommended Copyright Websites Web Page.

  10. Invite students to discuss their opinions on how these situations should be handled. Encourage them to explain why they agree or disagree with the ways legislation has evolved in these cases.

  11. Discuss what the future might hold for copyright law. Based on what they now know about the history of copyright law and some recent disagreements over copyright, what areas of copyright law do students think might be changed in the future? Why?

Session Two

  1. Ask students to think back to what they learned about the history of copyright law in the previous session, as well as the list of recent disagreements about copyright that they brainstormed. Have students consider the following questions in relationship to the information explored so far:

    • Why are there disagreements over copyright?

    • How does the point of view or perspective of different groups affect how they see copyright law?

    • How might something that seems fair to one group seem completely unfair to another group?
  2. Explain that students are going to examine some copyright issues in more detail but that they are going to adopt the perspective of a particular group involved in copyright issues.

  3. Divide the class into groups of three or four students, and assign each group a topic and a role. You can use the topics and roles provided on the assignment sheet handouts or assign different topics based on student interest. Assign two or more roles within each topic that you choose. If you want to focus more on a particular topic, assign more roles within that topic and fewer topics overall. If you prefer to introduce students to a wider range of copyright issues, assign more topics, with only two roles for each.

  4. Give each group the appropriate assignment sheet for its topic and role, and caution groups to keep their role secret from the other groups.

  5. Give groups time to read over their assignment sheets and ask any questions they have about the project.

  6. Give students access to the Internet to research their topic using the search terms on the assignment sheet. If students need additional support or a clearer starting point for their research, consider sharing the Recommended Copyright Websites Web page with them.

  7. Groups can decide on a strategy for researching the material. Each member might be responsible for reading and reporting on an article or group members might select one or two articles to use to familiarize themselves with the topic. Groups should take notes as they read, either on paper or by using the ReadWriteThink Notetaker.

  8. After groups have researched their topic, they should answer the questions in the Take a Stand section of their assignment sheets to decide how a person in their role would likely feel about the topic. Circulate the room as students are working on this section to make sure that students understand the perspective of their assigned role.

Session Three

  1. Explain to students that now that they have decided how a person in their role would feel about their topic, they should begin to prepare an argument to persuade others to share their point of view. Specific scenarios for this are given on each assignment sheet.

  2. Briefly discuss the presentation rules and grading points for their persuasive arguments, using information from the assignment sheet and the rubric.

  3. Have each group discuss the basics of the argument they plan to make. They can use the questions in the Think About section of their assignment sheet as points for discussion.

  4. After they have discussed the questions as a group, they should write the answers that they all agree to on a sheet of paper.

  5. Visit each group as students work on this section to check that they are developing an appropriate argument for the group’s role.

  6. Have students plan their argument using the Persuasion Map. Make sure that students print out their work before closing the window.

  7. Allow students time in and out of class to practice their persuasive arguments.

  8. Remind students that each group member must speak.

  9. Encourage group members to give each other constructive feedback about the specific components on which their oral argument will be assessed (eye contact with the audience, good rate of speed for their voice, and clarity of their speech) as they practice.

Sessions Four and Five

  1. Briefly introduce one of the topics students covered and its scenario, using the Topics and Roles Outline. Then have the groups who were assigned that topic offer their oral persuasive arguments.

  2. After each group finishes its argument, have students fill in a section of the Persuasion Meter handout for that group.

  3. When all groups for a topic have finished, discuss the persuasive arguments they presented. Use the following questions to guide discussion:

    • Did you find the arguments persuasive? Why or why not?

    • How many of us already had an opinion about the topic?

    • How did your opinions influence how you felt about each group’s argument?

    • What roles did you think each group represented?
  4. Allow each group to briefly explain its role. Then discuss how this information would have changed the effect of their argument, using the following questions:

    • Does knowing the role the group represented change how you feel about its argument?

    • Do you still find the group’s argument to be believable or credible? Why or why not?

    • If you still find its argument credible, what specific reasons do you have for doing so? (e.g., the group used specific facts, they already agreed with that group’s role anyway, etc.).
  5. Students also may want to further discuss the topic covered by the groups. If time permits, allow students to discuss and debate the topic.

  6. Repeat steps 1–5 for each topic researched by students.

  7. After all groups have presented their arguments, use the following questions to discuss the role perspective or point of view played in creating and rating the oral arguments:

    • How did the role you were given influence your arguments?

    • Would you have made the same argument yourself? Why or why not?

    • How did your own opinions influence how persuasive you felt a particular argument to be?

    • Are we more easily persuaded by arguments that more closely match our own existing views?
  8. Discuss the role point of view and persuasion or lobbying has had and may continue to have on changing copyright laws. Use the following questions:

    • What has motivated people or groups in the past to lobby or argue for change to the copyright laws?

    • What might motivate people in the future to lobby for a change to copyright laws?

    • In what ways do persuasion or lobbying come into play in changing copyright laws?


Use the ReadWriteThink lessons Technology and Copyright Law: A “Futurespective” and Students as Creators: Exploring Copyright to explore more aspects of copyright and intellectual property rights with your students.

Student Assessment / Reflections


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