Media literacy can be a huge part of Dakota State University’s technology mission. Especially in our digital media courses, we need to teach our students how to interpret and create messages and meanings. In Speech 101, I’m looking for ways to help students meld the basic skills of traditional speech communication with all the technology we have to connect with broader, distributed audiences (stay tuned for our Model UN coverage on DakotaStateUtube!)

But to teach and learn media literacy, teachers and students need to interact with a wide range of multimedia artifacts. When we share existing content and incorporate existing work into new products in the classroom, how do we determine fair use?

Center for Social Media to the rescue: the American University group offers The Code of Best Practices for Fair Use in Media Literacy Education. It’s not a definitive legal guide or list of rules of thumb. The Center for Social Media actually rejects “cut-and-dried rules” (some percentage of pages, certain number of seconds of video) and emphasizes that “Fair use is situational, and context is critical.”

A key point in determining fair use is transformativeness. Simply duplicating and distributing material is asking for trouble. If you “add important pedagogical value,” you can start making a case for fair use. Teachers and students transform material when they use an excerpt to illustrate a point and orient discussion. They transform material when they use selections from other texts to demonstrate their own learning and creativity.

The Center for Social Media makes clear that transformativeness and other guidelines are not final answers or license to sample and mash at will. You still need to obtain your materials legally, give due credit, and be a generally responsible digital citizen.

But CfSM also notes that getting sued for using various media in class is “very, very unlikely.” They know of no instance of an American media company suing a teacher over classroom use of materials. And even if you do cross a copyright line, you’re more likely to get a cease and desist letter, not a “Go Directly to Court” card.


A student in CIS427 asks about posting a link to a journal article. He wonders if it’s o.k. to save a copy of an article from the Mundt Library research databases. I offer this reply:

Good to see you reading the journals! Journals are tricky for open Web use. I’m not an expert on copyright and fair use, but if the source is a regular academic article and your only access to it is through the DSU library database, then it’s a good bet that you can’t post the article in full on the open Web. “Fair use” allows you to post quotes from it, discuss it, offer the full citation, and even try offering a link to the original in library database. But full copies — probably naughty. (I’ve even been nervous about saving complete copies from the library to my hard drive, but I think in-house copies for research and teaching are o.k., as long as you’re not making a copy available for unrestricted public redistribution.)

Am I right?