Copyright sounds scarier than it actually is when used in an educational context. As Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig commented, "few people do digital history without both making a creative contribution of their own and benefiting from the creativity of others." Digital storytelling (DST) embodies this basic observation. When thinking about how to craft a digital story, students will naturally begin thinking about published images, music, or videos that could best fit their story. The final product displayed in a history classroom, however, uses these published resources in a new way: to "teach" an audience something new about the past. Student DST projects, along with samples created by educators for classroom use, fall under what Lawrence Lessig refers to as "amateur creativity." Digital stories are simply not intended for commercial use.
Still worried? Cohen and Rosenzweig's chapter entitled "Owning the Past" in Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, is a good starting point for educators worried about copyright laws in education. Their overview of the history of copyright laws is helpful in erasing concerns that are often unwarranted. Cohen and Rosenzweig argued that much of what educators fear (like a lawsuit from Disney) is simply an "unquestioning compliance" to threats from rights holders...which are often shaky on legal grounds. Educators do possess some rights for educational purposes. Often dubbed "fair use," the idea is simply that any use of copyrighted material should be selective, consist of a small portion of the original material, and be clearly used for instructional purposes.
This is not to say that educators should be careless in their use of copyrighted material. A clear difference, however, exists between creating a DST project for a class assignment (or a presentation for a group of educators, much like this site) and one created for commercial purposes. In other words, if a professor were to use copyrighted material to develop a digital movie, and then charge viewers a fee to view the video, that scholar would run afoul of copyright laws currently in place. This is much different than creating a model video for students to view as they think about their own projects. In fact, using DST in the classroom is an excellent opportunity to discuss intellectual property, copyright, and open access. A digital story, like any academic work, should provide specific and detailed attribution to sources that are referenced and used in a final product. Teaching students how to properly cite sources in footnotes and in a bibliography, as well as how to properly attribute sources in a DST project, is an essential part of history education.
Here are some suggestions on how to ease any worries about copyright violations without sacrificing intellectual and creative freedom:
Unless a DST project proves profitable, or attracts a vast audience, it will be probably go unnoticed by rights holders...assuming that copyrighted materials are an extensive part of the video. Most likely, digital stories will fall under the "grey area" of educational fair use. History educators should hopefully encourage students to attribute sources as part of their experience as budding historians. Although the suggestions provided here will go a long way towards minimizing unwarranted fears about copyright issues, this site does not pretend to offer legal advice on copyright laws. It simply offers an overview that allows history teachers and students to work on DST projects in a more educated, and less stressful, manner.