Sunday, April 08, 2007

Intellectual Property Law for the Kids -- time to teach it in public schools

The World Wide Web, in conjunction with search engines, all of this together with Peer-to-Peer computing, and especially newer incarnations like Web 2.0 or 3.0, are kind of a geekolator’s realization of the mystic idea of astral projection. One ‘s thoughts or images (maybe holographic, at least animated or video) may be transmitted almost anywhere on the planet (even Saudi Arabia and China, surprisingly often) at the speed of light. Maybe in a couple decades years, it will be fifteen minutes to Mars, or about an hour or so to a base on Europa or Titan.

That presents an unprecedented situation, the free entry situation, which, as we know from stories about social networking sites especially, is starting to worry employers and all other kinds of interests, including the notorious RIAA. Even when a blog or profile is “whitelisted”, the viral “friends” process pretty much can give something provocative a worldwide distribution.

People are publishing themselves with absolutely no training or education in the legal risks. I saw the Miramax film “The Hoax” last night, about the false autobiography of Howard Hughes by Clifford Irving, and saw what the tortuous, bean-counting and bureaucratic process of getting published was three decades ago, and how a “writer” was a real professional, unfortunately all too often a hack to transmit someone else’s message. The film did project a certain irony.

It has gotten to the point that public school systems really should provide education on the legal concepts, which especially include copyright and defamation, as well as security concerns. Schools already, by necessity, have a handle on plagiarism and academic integrity (and even proper attribution of sources has to be taught). But we’ve all heard the horror stories of suits by record companies against kids and their parents, and the concerns of employers about job applicants defaming themselves “for fun” or even for political protest (“dreamcatching”) on their blogs and profiles. We’re even hearing about people not getting jobs because of searchable defamation posted by others.

How would the curriculum be developed and when would it be taught? The most obvious place is probably English, starting no later than the tenth grade (ninth grade for honors, maybe even earlier). Social studies is the other place. Most schools teach world history in ninth or tenth grade, American history in eleventh, and government or civics in twelfth. Government class sounds like a logical place for more advanced instruction about copyright, defamation, privacy invasion, right of publicity, and even trade secrets, conflict of interest, and "implicit content". The other place is, of course, technology education (often taught at career centers or academies) but not all students take this. Some of these concepts are commonly taught in high school journalism (in conjunction with yearbook and the school paper), but not that many students take it.

American business – the software vendors and the media and music companies – should be proactive in helping to develop the curricula. It will be difficult for conventional textbooks to keep this kind of material current. Teachers themselves will need to be trained in the topics, which are sometimes quite tricky.