Harry Potter and the Great Copyright Conundrum

Published December 6, 2011 by electricbluegaloo

I’m typing this post in the line for the ‘Harry Potter’ exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum and there are about a thousand people in front of me.
Little tip: allow at least an hour for lining up.
The subject of today’s musings is copyright, plagiarism and originality, and how to help children understand these concepts.
I shall disclaim right now that nowhere shall I suggest that JK Rowling plagiarized or breached any copyright. What she has done, however, is very cleverly weave together lots of ideas that other people have also had over the years.

Many times I have taught creative writing to students who are so concerned with ‘originality’ that they completely forget how to communicate with their audience.  What JK Rowling has done is build an empire on centuries, and even millennia of myth and folk law, sprinkled with a heavy dose of real and raw emotions.

So why do I mention copyright and plagiarism?  As far as plagiarism is concerned I think we (teachers, parents and the community at large) must be doing something right because the students I work with are slowly coming around to the notion that you’re not supposed to copy great chunks of information from a website and paste it into your own document.  But I just don’t think kids get why you’re not supposed to.   Cynthia Karena wrote in her 2010 article All Their Own Work (pp34-35, Australian Educator Issue 67) that teachers are explaining why, but I don’t believe it is as simple as asking “would you like it if someone stole your ideas?”

We need to make it clear to students that if they plagiarise someone’s work, it is not just illegal, breach of copyrite and immoral, but they are not practising the art of communication.

I set what I thought to be an extremely easy task for a year 5 class last year.  We had been looking at Polar Boy and discussing the animals in the story, so I asked them to research one of the animals Sandy Fussell has mentioned.  I took note of Cynthia Karena’s advice that setting easier tasks would reduce plagiarism so all they had to do was find 3 facts and a picture in one hour, and copy and paste the addresses of any websites they used.  What the kids proudly showed me was pages of information copied straight from the web, no references and absolutely no idea what the information was about.

I had to start back at square one – “Read the information,” I said.  “If you find one interesting fact, write it down”. Lots of modelling later and they finally got the idea, but I would like to build on Cynthia’s points by adding that we must always reinforce that the purpose of completing an assignment is to communicate.  It is up to teachers to ensure that the question is structured so that the student can give an opinion, an opinion based on the evidence they gather.  Continually ask them what they have learned and if it is answering the assignment question.

 When you ask a child, or any student of any age really, to research and write an assignment you are not asking them to invent or investigate everything from scratch.  What they should be doing is looking at what is already out there, and putting it together in a way that communicates their own ideas or feelings in response to the set task.

ps if you can get your hands on a copy of the article All Their Own Work it is a very interesting take on the issue.


3 comments on “Harry Potter and the Great Copyright Conundrum

  • Cynthia Karena suggests that the workload may be too hard or the uni students have not learned the drafting and editing process in school. If they are anything like my university class mates they are too busy socalising.

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