The MPAA is Turning to Elementary Schools to Win the Anti-Piracy Fight

A kid watching a pirated movie on TV

The Motion Picture Association of America, major internet service providers, and the RIAA are rallying together to support a new initiative to educate elementary school students about digital media piracy and copyright law. According to the Los Angeles Times, "A nonprofit group called the Center for Copyright Information, which is supported by the MPAA and other groups, has commissioned a school curriculum to teach elementary-age children about the value of copyrights."

Taking a page from the "Scared Straight!" playbook, the MPAA is promoting the nascent plan as a smart way to educate kids about the dangers of stealing digital media assets. The long-term goal is to create a culture of fair play where everyone respects — and plays by — the rules. Piracy is theft, curriculum supporters argue, so doesn't it make sense to teach students about it before they become high-tech hooligans? The fair use component could be a useful lesson, too, though there is an inevitable slide into gray areas that even top-tier lawyers don't understand.

draft of the curriculum, first published by Wired, was "blasted for presenting what critics said was a one-sided view of intellectual property by omitting the concept of fair use, which allows for the reproduction of copyrighted works without permission in certain cases, such as commentary and parody."

Naysayers also see this proposed program as aggressive push-back by entertainment industry oligarchs and a waste of precious resources. Schools are already squeezed by budget cuts and austerity measures. Adding new modules to the school curriculum means less class time for other subjects. Wouldn't it be more effective to teach students about academic integrity, digital literacy, and plagiarism? It's unacceptable to copy and paste a Wikipedia article on the Continental Congress and present it as your own; students need to understand why, and the potential consequences.

Kevin Hogan, the editorial director of Tech & Learning, a resource for educators and technologists working in kindergarten through twelfth-grade classrooms, thinks the anti-piracy curriculum doesn't hold up under investigation. "While the education experts we speak with all endorse the value of establishing a digital literacy for students — what does fair use mean, how to credit primary sources, etc. — I don't recall many espousing the virtues of antiquated copyright laws that protect corporate interests over learning," he said.

Many educators and instructional designers see the value in clarifying best practices in digital media. While not the panacea of education reform, technology and technical skills are viewed widely as salutary pedagogical tools. EdTech supporters cite inventive applications such as 3D modeling for science lessons and virtual reality gaming that lets students experience the architecture and culture of the Harlem Renaissance. Wiki-a-thons — growing in popularity — help students take ownership of their own research process by encouraging kids to be fastidious fact-finders, fact-checkers, and proofreaders.

Technology analyst and reporter Tim Kridel believes that a better way to inspire a culture of legality around digital media is to "educate parents about how common it is for a household to lose Internet service for copyright violations."  

Also notable is that this anti-piracy initiative is taking root in Los Angeles, the site of an epic iPad fail earlier this season. After a deployment of hundreds of iPads in the Los Angeles United School District, savvy students quickly bypassed a security feature designed to prevent them from accessing unauthorized sites — faster than you could say detention.  

Ultimately, this is a marketplace that is remaking itself, and the power structure will change as a result, says Cynthia Wisehart, editor of Sound & Video Contractor. Even the definitions of piracy are evolving. 

"Schoolchildren will one day own content themselves, or help produce it, or sell it, or market it, or consume it — or all of the above," Wisehart said. "This will be their world — and their marketplace — and it will not be the simple world the MPAA understands. So 'educating' children on 'piracy' is a narrowly-sighted and self-interested attempt to protect a distribution model that no longer exists for better or worse."

"There's not enough law enforcement or education in the world to bring back the old market. Better to educate children about what some of the pioneering content creators think about compensation — and there are many differing views on this and many different models for exchange. Teach them those models, and teach them as creators not consumers. Because when they think about this as creators there's a chance they will become more ethical participants in the marketplace. Teach them to value what they make themselves, and to consume what they value. That will do more to improve the future market than bullying and shaming them to preserve the traditional power structure of the old market."