Standard Lesson

Students as Creators: Exploring Copyright

6 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 50-minute sessions
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This lesson gives students the tools they need to consider the ethical issues surrounding use and ownership of copyrighted materials. Students discuss how to tell if a work is protected and how copyright affects their ability to use resources in their own work. They use five key questions to determine if they can legally use a resource. Students then use specific tools and resources to find works that are in the public domain and explore how to contact copyright holders for permission to use works that are not in the public domain. Next, students practice properly citing multimedia resources. Finally, students explore how and when to protect their own works from copyright infringement. This lesson can be used in conjunction with any student project to address copyright.

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

Fair Use law relaxes restrictions about acceptable use of copyrighted material in student work. It is still important, however, that students understand the more stringent rules that apply outside Fair Use. They will need to work within these rules outside school, and, as is increasingly common, when publishing their works on the Web. By giving students strategies for determining whether a use of copyrighted work is acceptable, demonstrating the means by which they can obtain permission to use a copyrighted work, and asking them to consider the possibility of copyrighting their own works, educators foster an understanding of both the purpose and means of respecting the intellectual property rights of others.

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.
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 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.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 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 lesson is designed to be co-planned and co-taught by the classroom teacher and the school library media specialist. Meet to decide responsibilities for teaching the lessons and assessing student work, as well as to arrange logistics for using the library media center.

  • This lesson works best when it accompanies an authentic student project for which copyright should be considered (such as conducting research, creating wikis, or producing video). Prior to beginning this lesson, give students the guidelines for the project (including information about the ethical use of borrowed material) and have them begin the planning stages.

  • Prepare one copy of the "Can I Use It?" Checklist for Copyright Clearance, Online Sources for Finding Works in the Public Domain, and Copyright Organizer handouts for each student or group, depending on the nature of the project students will use the copyrighted information in.

  • The classroom teacher and library media specialist should test the Letter Generator on student computers to familiarize themselves with the tool and ensure that the Flash plug-in is installed. Schools can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • find resources in the public domain.

  • identify and contact the copyright holder of resources.

  • learn how to protect their own original works.

  • decide how to use copyright protection for their works.

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

  1. Begin the lesson with a discussion facilitated by both the classroom teacher and the library media specialist. Ask students to share their ideas about what it means for something to be copyright protected. Ask them how they can know if something is copyright protected or if it is acceptable to use it in their work.

  2. Have students go to Copyright Kids! and read the first seven brief sections, which discuss why works are copyrighted and which types of works are covered by copyright. Discuss any questions students might have.

  3. Next, read myths 5-8 on the Copyright Site's Myths about Copyright page, pausing after each myth to allow students to predict whether or not the statement is true. Students may be surprised to learn that they can't just use anything posted on the Web or anything that doesn't have a copyright notice.

  4. Discuss with students what considering copyright will mean for projects they create, using the following questions to help guide the conversation:

    • Will you be able to use any images from books or the Web?

    • Will you be able to use your favorite music as background?

    • Will you need to create every image and sound in your presentations yourself?

    • Will you be able to quote a favorite author or lyrics from a favorite song?
  5. After hearing their ideas, explain that you will discuss some specific ways to find sound, images, and text that they can use legally during the next session. If possible, the library media specialist should post reliable sites that can help students find legal materials on the school or library Website.

Session Two

  1. Give each group a copy of the "Can I Use It?" Checklist for Copyright Clearance, and review it with students. Explain that there are five basic ways to be sure the resources they use in their own projects are legal under copyright law. If they can answer yes to one of the five following questions, they can use the resource in their work:

    • Did you create it yourself?

    • Is it in the public domain?

    • Is it a type of work that is not protected by copyright?

    • Do you have the copyright holder's written permission to use it?

    • If it is text, are you using a small excerpt from it and citing it properly?
  2. Discuss public domain. Works that are in the public domain can be used freely by anyone, although the source still should be referenced.

  3. Refer students to the Copyright Site's description of Public Domain. The major types of works that are in the public domain are works created by the government, works created before 1923, and works whose authors specifically granted them to the public domain (or the "creative commons" with limited rights reserved). The Copyright Term and the Public Domain chart lists specific types of works and whether or not they are in the public domain; it also gives dates for when copyright terms expire for various types of works.

  4. The classroom teacher and library media specialist should brainstorm some resources students might use to find images, sound, videos, and so forth, in the public domain. Some possibilities include libraries with collections of old books, online books sites (most of these primarily have texts that are in the public domain), freeware clip art or sound file sites that specifically assign their works to the public domain, and government documents or sites (including NASA and the U.S. Park Service).

  5. Give each group a copy of Online Sources for Finding Works in the Public Domain. Point out that while these sites are likely places to find public domain materials, students should always check specific materials and collections for copyright notices.

  6. Introduce students to the Copyright Organizer handout.

  7. Explain that they can use this handout to list general resources, including text, images, or sound, that they want to incorporate in their own projects. They then can find and list specific resources that would work, where they are located, and what their copyright status is.

    • If students are working on a specific project, they can use this sheet to organize the materials for that project. Be sure the rubric or assessment for the project includes a strand for checking the organizer.

    • If they are not, they can use this sheet to practice finding materials and assessing their copyright status. In that case, the classroom teacher and library media specialist may want to suggest some general types of material for them to look for, such as a sad song or a cheerful picture. Encourage students to list resources that are not in the public domain, as well as resources that are.

Session Three

  1. Ask students if there are any images or sounds that they listed on the Copyright Organizer that are not in the public domain. Ask them whether there is another way they legally can use these resources.

  2. Direct students to the Copyright Kids! section on Getting Permission to use copyrighted works, and ask them to turn to a partner and together read the information offered there. The site offers contact information for major organizations for music, film, television, and books; this information can help students find the appropriate contact person for copyright permission. Have students look together for this information. The site also offers sample letters requesting permission to use copyrighted materials. The University of Reading also offers reference information about contacting copyright holders.

  3. Explain that even if students are creating their own videos or photography, they may need to obtain permission in some circumstances, even though the final videos or photographs are their own work.

  4. Ask students who they might need to obtain permission from before using their own photography or video in a project. Explain that they need to obtain permission from any people featured in their videos or photographs, as well as the owners of any copyrighted objects (such as a statue or monument) that will be featured. Permission for incidental people or objects need not be obtained. If necessary, discuss scenarios to clarify this:

    • If a work of art, such as a statue, is the subject of your photograph but a person happens to be walking by when you snap the shot and is in the photograph, you will need permission from the copyright holder of the statue, but not from the person walking by.

    • If your friend is the subject of your photograph, and he is standing in front of a statue, you will need permission from your friend, but probably not from the copyright holder of the statue.
  5. Discuss any questions students may have about identifying a copyright owner, writing for permission to use a work, or determining when permission is needed to use a photograph or video they have taken.

  6. Students who want to use a copyrighted work in their own projects can write for permission to use the work. Students can adapt the sample copyright permission letter or use the Letter Generator to compose their requests. If an email address is available, this could speed up the response time significantly. In any case, alert students to the possibility that they may need to wait several weeks for a reply and that their requests could be denied. Allow students to proceed with the requested item in their own projects (under Fair Use guidelines), but caution them that they will not be able to publish their works on the school Website or on disks unless and until permission is received.

  7. Students who are working with student-created video or photography can develop a simple release form for the subjects in their photographs/videos.

  8. If students are not working on an authentic project, you may want to have them write practice letters for permission instead. Be sure to have them research the proper recipient for the request.

Session Four

  1. Begin this session by reviewing what students know about citation, asking questions such as "What types of things should be cited?" and "What common elements should be included in a citation?" Student responses should include direct quotes, as well as resources that have been paraphrased or used as a general resource. They should mention elements such as author or creator, publisher, relevant date, URL, and so forth.

  2. If students need additional information about the basics of avoiding plagiarism, review the ReadWriteThink lesson Exploring Plagiarism, Copyright, and Paraphrasing.

  3. Ask students if they know how to cite resources such as the following:

    • a journal article

    • a Website

    • a piece of music

    • an e-mail message

    • a photograph

    • a blog or blog entry
  4. Explain that in the digital age there are many different types of resources, each of which is cited in a slightly different way. With so many types of sources available and new types of resources being made available all the time, it is important to know where to find information about properly citing resources.

  5. Direct students to several resources for citing multimedia sources. These resources might include the style manual preferred by your school, as well as online sites. Bedford/St. Martin's Citation Styles Online describes how to cite online sources in several common citation styles. Students also may need information about citing film, TV, and online media.

  6. If students are working on their own projects, ask them to turn in a bibliography of sources they reference in their work. If they are not, select a few sources online and ask students to practice by citing them.

Session Five

  1. When students have completed their own projects, allow them to share their work with their classmates. You might want to have a "release party" during this sharing time, with snacks and decorations.

  2. Ask students to describe how they feel seeing their work in a published format and how they would feel if someone took their project and sold it or altered it in some way.

  3. Ask students if their work is protected by copyright and whether there are any steps they need to take to make sure it is protected.

  4. Direct students to the Register Your Own Works section of the Copyright Kids! site, and have them read about the reasons for registering a copyright and the process for registering it.

  5. Discuss the information with students, discussing the options they have, according the information they read. They can do nothing and still be protected by basic copyright or register their copyrights at a cost for additional protection.

  6. Ask students to discuss other options they may have. Explain that some authors and musicians transfer their copyright to a publisher or recording company in exchange for royalties or other benefits. The author or musician may not be able to afford to produce a large number of copies of their work to sell as a publisher or record producer could.

  7. Ask students to discuss their options in small groups (if the project they completed was a group project, students should work within those same groups) and list the pros and cons of each of their choices.

  8. Ask each group to determine which choice they prefer and to record the reasons for their choices.

  9. Have groups share their choices with the full class.


Student Assessment / Reflections


  • The classroom teacher and school media specialist will together assess students’ completed Copyright Organizers, permission request letters, and citations from Session Four to ascertain whether they understood the basics of identifying copyright protection for particular works, writing to request permission to use a copyrighted work, and the basics of citation.

  • Both the classroom teacher and the school media specialist should observe students during the process of planning and creating their own projects to assess their understanding of the copyright rules.


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