[click image to play video in QuickTime format; 21 meg, 0:04:44]
This documentary film is the result of a collaborative effort among the members of a composition class at Michigan State University. Purposefully ambiguous in its narrative, this film is focused on achieving an atmospheric effect, inviting viewers to experience the type of community we developed over the course of a semester. Perhaps this film raises more questions about human subjects and our "uses" of student images and student work.
This film is also designed to be generative in nature, provoking such questions as:
- To what extent do students contribute to the content of their composition course?
- In what ways, and for what reasons, do students take ownership over their composition course?
- How can a student representation of their composition course (in this case through film) complicate and extend the way students and instructors view the composition classroom?
- How do students engage with their composition course in both individual and communal ways?
As instructor of this course and designers of this project, copyright held no sway over our decisions. At the outset, copyright was a vague and nebulous hindrance much easier to ignore than wade through, especially since this was our first attempt at a collaborative film documentary. Our concerns were with the affordances and limitations of the medium itself, as well as with the issues of collaboration and rendering of student images and ideas. This approach is consistent with the way that invention most often takes place, especially in a new medium.
If copyright doesn’t take into account the way that invention works, then copyright dictums will continue to be both intentionally and unintentionally circumnavigated. The fact that our final movie product does not utilize copyrighted materials beyond background music samples is not a result of consciously wishing to avoid or comply with copyright law; it is a result of the questions we set out to answer and portray through this digital medium.
An added complexity did arise, however, when I was invited to give a presentation on this classroom film documentary at a conference (National Council of Teachers of English). This outside audience necessitated a stance with regard to copyright. I argued that this documentary film does fall under Fair Use based on two main factors:
- This digital documentary is a creative work produced for and within an educational context. By creative I am referring to the creation of a new and unique perspective and opposed to a “copy-and-paste” approach. As a creative work that utilizes appropriation and remixing, this documentary adds directly to the health and growth of the artistic ecosystem and should thus be protected under Fair Use.
- The law may not echo this claim, but I believe that Intention plays an important role in whether or not something should be described as Fair Use. Our intention was not to pawn off as our own something another artist created and to make a profit on it—quite the opposite—our intention was to render our own view of the semester as seen through the eyes of the students both as individuals and as a collective. Taking credit for someone else’s work was not the goal and, furthermore, upon viewing the final product, it is clear that the creation of new knowledge is heavily privileged over the dissemination of existing media.
Out of this process of working around, through, and within copyright it is clear that writing teachers need to be copyright activists and Fair Use advocates for both the work they do with students in the classroom (encouraging and helping student invention and creativity in ways that are explicitly related to the world in which they live) and for the way they are uniquely positioned to help students navigate and intellectually understand issues surrounding copyright. Furthermore, Fair Use advocates are especially needed given the current copyright landscape in which the space between economic and artistic intent is being subjected to quick and deliberate erosion.