Plagiarism, Fair Use and Handbags

I have recently been engaged in many discussions on plagiarism. We have been trying to create a curriculum on academic dishonesty across all grade levels. We want students to be able to distinguish when they cite vs. when they don’t. We want students to know when they can ask a classmate for help and when they have gone too far. We want students to understand that taking material or giving material without citations are both problematic.

These are all terribly difficult topics to clearly convey to students. Now, add the rub. I was in a department meeting with teachers discussing how to set up an effective foreign language multimedia lab. The teachers felt strongly that all the DVD and VHS content they had should be digitized and be available in streaming form to students. Fantastic, who wouldn’t agree? Well, me for one. I asked the teachers to go out to the publishers and ask for digital content. We cannot break DMCA and rip DVD’s to our servers. We have to license content, just like we buy a textbook for every student rather than making photocopies. This didn’t go over too well, and was not totally understood. Teachers saw the hurdle as technical, where the real hurdle for me is ethical/legal. If we don’t want students to download pirated music, we can’t show them pirated science experiment films.

Fair Use, the most overused and misunderstood words in this topic area. Librarians are the key in the discussion. Yes, we can tape shows from PBS under conditions X, Y, Z. Yes, we can photocopy a chapter, but not the entire book, and not for every year, but for some years. Ok, there are difficult rules to examine, but those discussions are healthy and powerful. Students can engage in similar discussions exploring ethical use of media.

My favorite example: a teacher had a fake Coco Chanel handbag and was somewhat defending the purchase. My comment: how will a student understand that it is ok for a teacher to buy a pirated bag, but not ok for a student to download a pirated song?

arvind s. grover

I am a progressive educator, a podcaster (, a blogger, and dean of faculty of JK-11 school (building a high school) in New York City.