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Wider Use of Computers in Schools Brings Confusion Over Copyrights

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When students working on a geography project download a colorful map from the Internet or pluck a regional folk song from a CD-ROM, can their teacher or principal be sued for breaking copyright laws?

All too often, educators simply don't know.

As schools' use of technologies such as the Internet, complex software tools, and CD-ROMs spreads, increasing numbers of educators are unsure of their rights. There is widespread confusion about the use of copyright multimedia material for educational purposes, said August W. Steinhilber, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association.

Lawsuits against individual schools or educators are unlikely except in egregious cases, experts say. But schools may soon be compelled either to spend additional money for licensing agreements that would allow them to make greater use of such material, or to curtail their use of it.

The main point of confusion is how the traditional right of "fair use" of copyright material for educational purposes translates into the digital age.

A group of software companies and some educational organizations released proposed guidelines this month that they hope will clarify the issue. The drafting of the guidelines, which spell out when schools can use information from multimedia sources without notifying or compensating the copyright holders, was coordinated by the the Consortium of College and University Media Centers, based at Iowa State University in Ames.

But many participants in the two-year effort--colleges and universities, public and private K-12 schools, and libraries--have refused to endorse the guidelines. Officials from the National Education Association and the NSBA say the final version places too many restrictions on schools.

And Adam M. Eisgrau, the legislative counsel of the American Library Association, charged the guideline organizers with trying to "create an impression that a broad consensus had been reached." In fact, he said, "there is deep division between major library and educational associations and the proponents of these guidelines."

The guidelines have no force of law but could influence school and library practices, future legislation, and court decisions, experts say.

Uncertain Boundaries

A federal copyright law enacted two decades ago spells out the conditions for fair use of portions of copyright material, but technological advances in recent years have blurred its meaning.

Today, many schools and libraries are experimenting with the vast potential of multimedia technology for the artful blending of images, sound, and text--often drawing from commercial sources--in education projects. They want an interpretation of fair use that does not create new burdens of cost and red tape.

But commercial producers of software and digital materials want to prevent uses of their products that might harm sales. They favor flexible licensing arrangements under which schools and libraries would pay extra for permission to make broader use of copyright material from commercial multimedia.

Erica Bonnett, the deputy director of the Washington-based Creative Incentive Coalition, an industry group that took part in the negotiations leading to the guidelines issued this month, said the guidelines will clear up confusion and fear among users of copyright materials in new digital formats.

But Mr. Steinhilber of the NSBA said the fair-use guidelines are out of step with the needs of elementary and secondary education.

For example, he said, they would prevent teachers from displaying a student project made with copyright elements except in the classroom in which it was created. Such a limit, Mr. Steinhilber said, could stymie cross-curricular methods that are increasingly popular in K-12 schools.

The guidelines also would allow student projects to include only small portions of a copyright work. Mr. Steinhilber said the provision is impractical and that it is based on an improbable concern that schoolchildren will produce commercial-grade projects that will compete with vendors' wares.

Mark Traphagen, the vice president and counsel for intellectual property and trade policy for the Software Publishers Association, a Washington-based trade group, defended the guidelines. He said that the industry met educators halfway, and that the guidelines would allow educators to use digital information extensively without fear of copyright infringement.

The guidelines, Mr. Traphagen added, focus "on real-life needs of educators and students rather than hypothetical problems of fair use."

The software publishers' group, the Association of American Publishers, other industry groups, and several small groups representing colleges and universities gave early endorsement to the guidelines.

Many of the groups involved in writing them are also taking part in parallel talks on fair-use guidelines in four other areas--distance learning, electronic archives, digital interlibrary loans, and digital images.

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