Copyrights and Wrongs (9-12)

How can I make responsible choices when I use other people’s creative work?

Students are introduced to copyright, fair use, and the rights they have as creators.

Students explore the legal and ethical dimensions of respecting creative work. First, they learn a basic foundation of legal principles and vocabulary related to copyright. They understand how such factors as the rules of copyright law, the values and intent of the original creator, and the audience and purpose should affect their decisions about using the creative work of others. Using the Mad Men Student Handout, students then apply these principles to a simulation activity in which they act as advertising executives who have to choose a photo for an ad campaign. 

Students will be able to ...

  • identify the legal and ethical considerations involved in using the creative work of others.
  • understand an individual’s rights and responsibilities as a creator and consumer of content.
  • practice critical thinking and ethical decision making about the use of creative works.

Materials and Preparation

  •  Preview the video “Copyright and Fair Use Animation” and prepare to show it to students.
  • Copy the Mad Men Student Handout, one for each student. 
  • Review and print out the Mad Men Student Handout – Teacher Version.

Teaching Plans


Warm-up (5 minutes)

ASK: What do you think we mean when we talk about someone’s creative work?  

Students should understand that the term includes all types of work that someone creates, including writing of all kinds, artwork, and photos, videos, and music.

ASK: Have you ever used creative work you found online – for example, a photo or a poem – for personal use?

Students should name various ways they use the creative work of others – for example, using a photo in a school report, posting it on their Facebook page, or even forwarding it on their cell phone.

ASK: When you use creative work you find online, what considerations do you make about who made it, if any? 

Encourage students to talk about what they consider, if anything, before using material they find online. Ask them to think about how creators would want their work to be used. What would be okay? What would not be okay?

teach 1

Respect Creative Work (15 minutes)

SHOW the video “Copyright and Fair Use Animation”.

ASK: What are the ways you can be respectful of people’s creative work? 

Students should be aware of the following tips:

  • Check who owns it 
  • Get permission to use it 
  • Give credit to the creator 
  • Buy it (if necessary) 
  • Use it responsibly

ASK: How do you think you would you feel if someone used your creative work? Would it make a difference whether they did the following:

  • Asked your permission to use it?
  • Gave you credit as the creator?
  • Changed the picture or added a caption without asking you?

Students should reflect on how their sense of pride and ownership would/would not be affected.

ASK: What do you think it means to use someone else’s creative work responsibly? Does it matter how and where you use it? 

Encourage students to think about context, and how it might affect or alter the creator’s original intent.

EXPLAIN to students that in addition to these key rules, some additional information may help them decide when and how it is all right – and not all right – to use someone else’s creative work. 

DEFINE the Key Vocabulary terms fair use and commercial purposes. Make sure students understand that fair use allows them to use only a small part of someone else’s creative work as part of something new. The work cannot be used for commercial purposes, and it can only be used in certain ways, which include:

  • schoolwork and education
  • news reporting
  • criticism or social commentary
  • comedy or parody

ASK: What are some ways you might use creative work that would constitute fair use? Which ways wouldn’t be covered under fair use?

Students should understand that using a small amount of someone else’s work in a school report or the school paper would be fair use, while posting it on their blog or on a social networking site would not be fair use.

DEFINE the Key Vocabulary terms copyright, Creative Commons, and public domain. Explain that when students want to use someone’s creative work in a way that isn’t covered by fair use, they need to investigate its copyright status. Then offer the following scenario to help explain the definitions:

Imagine you took a photo of your dog and posted it online. Because you are the creator, you own
the copyright to this image. This means you have control over how other people use your photo.
Copyright law is pretty strict, meaning that people will have to get your permission before they can copy, print, or use your work for any reason.

However, if you use a Creative Commons license, you give people more freedom to copy and share your photo. Some Creative Commons licenses even say it is all right to make money off of the photo, while others say it cannot be used for commercial purposes. People choose Creative Commons licenses because the licenses offer more opportunities for other people to use and share their work. 

Optional: show students examples of Creative Commons licenses.

Finally, imagine that you want the photo to be used freely by all, without people having to request permission. You then would release the photo into the public domain, which allows others to use your photo however they want to because it is no longer protected by copyright. Copyrights don’t last forever, so works often count as “public domain” after a certain time period. Works from the U.S. government are also in the public domain.

ASK: If you created a picture, poem, or video and posted it online, what do you think you would do? Would you make people get your permission every time they used the work, use a Creative Commons license, or put it in the public domain? Explain your choice.

Responses will vary, but students’ answers should reflect an understanding of the choices. Some students might want their work seen by as many people as possible, while others might want to limit use and receive compensation.

teach 2

Choose Your Photo (20 minutes)

DIVIDE students into groups of four to five, and distribute the Mad Men Student Handout, one per group.

TELL students they will be “mad men” in this activity. (The term “mad men” is shorthand for “Madison Avenue ad men,” who were advertising executives who worked on Madison Avenue in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s. It is also the name of a popular television show that began running in 2007.) As “mad men,” they will have to decide on a photo to use for an advertising campaign.

HAVE a volunteer read aloud the directions and letter on the student handout.

EXPLAIN to students that advertising is a commercial purpose, so fair use does not apply. In order for
advertising executives to use a photograph, they need to do one of the following things:

  • They can use a photograph for which they already own the copyright.
  • They can get permission from the copyright holder to use that photo for commercial purposes (and pay any fee the copyright holder might charge).
  • They can use a photo that is in the public domain.

In addition to considering the copyright status of the photo, students also need to consider the original intent of the creator and the effectiveness of the photo for their ad campaign.

INSTRUCT students first to analyze and answer the questions about each photo before they make a decision. They will need to defend their choices. Allow students approximately 10 minutes to review their options and reach a consensus.

INVITE students to present their findings to the class. Students should describe why they chose their photos.

LEAD a discussion about the issues that come up when students want to use someone’s creative work, using the Mad Men Student Handout – Teacher Version. If there are photos that none of the groups chose, go through them and encourage students to explain why they decided against using those photos, based on their responses to the questions.

Note: There is no “correct answer” for this activity. Your goal is to guide students to think – first and foremost – about whether their choices reflect responsible use of an image, and second, whether it serves the purpose of the company and their ad campaign well.


Wrap-up (5 minutes)

You can use these questions to assess your students’ understanding of the lesson objectives. You may want to ask students to reflect in writing on one of the questions, using a journal or an online blog/wiki.

ASK: What do you need to do if you want to use someone else’s creative work?

Students should be able to name the following checklist points from Teach 1:

  • Check who owns it 
  • Get permission to use it, if necessary 
  • Give credit to the creator 
  • Buy it (if necessary) 
  • Use it responsibly

ASK: What is copyright, and what does it require people to do?

Students should understand the concept that a person owns the creative work that he or she has made, whether it is writing, visual art, photography, video, music, or in some other form. They should recognize that someone else cannot use copyrighted work legally without the permission of the person who created it.

ASK: Do you think it is important to give credit and get permission, if needed, when you use someone else’s creative work? Why or why not?

Students should understand that there are ethical as well as legal considerations involved in using the work of others. They should realize that most people want to receive credit for their creative work. Some might want their work seen by as many people as possible, while others might want to limit use and receive compensation. However, when respecting creative work, the choice should be that of the creators.


Invite students to develop a tag line for an ad campaign using the picture they have chosen. Provide students with examples of tag lines, such as “I’m lovin’ it™” for McDonalds or “Just Do It™” for Nike. Make sure they understand that a tag line is a slogan or memorable phrase used in advertising that sums up the tone of a brand, product, or campaign. Have students make a sample billboard or magazine ad featuring the photo and tag line. Have groups present their ad campaigns to the class, and invite the class to vote for the best campaign. Students can create their poster or ad using Microsoft Publisher, Photoshop, PowerPoint, or a free program available in Open Office.

At-Home Activity

Introduce students to the Library of Congress’s Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, which is an excellent source for images that are in the public domain, and to Flickr, where they can find many photos that can be used under a Creative Commons license. Encourage students to work witha parent or other family member to choose a subject that interests them both – perhaps something related to family history, such as Ellis Island or their city or town’s early history. Have them search for images on their subject on the Library of Congress site and/or on Flickr. They also can do the entire project with their family member, and use a public library if they do not have Internet access at home. Instruct them to choose at least four images, print them out, and create a photo display. Each image should have a caption that includes its title, date, and any available information on its source. Have students use Photoshop, Frobee Slideshow Maker,      PhotoSnack, or Animoto to create a slide show or video on the computer.

Alignment with Standards

Common Core & NETS•S
Common Core State Standards Initiative ©2012 & National Educational Technology Standards for Students ©2007, International Society for Technology in Education

grades 9-10: RI.1-4, RI.8, RI.10, W.2a-f, W.6-8, W.10, SL.1a-d, SL.3-.5, L.4a, L.6
grades 11-12: RL.1, RL.2, RL.4, RL.7, RL.8, RL.10, RI.1, RI.2, RI.4, RI.10, W.2a-f, W.6-10, SL.1a-d, SL.2-5, L.4a, L.6

NETS•S: 1c, 1d, 2a, 2d, 3a, 3d, 4a, 4c, 5a, 5c, 5d