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Two Competing Copyright Curricula

Two Competing Copyright Curricula: The 2009 Release of Intellectual Property Curricula from the Recording Industry Association of America and the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Clancy Ratliff, University of Louisiana at Lafayette


In 2009, both the Recording Industry Association of America (hereafter RIAA) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (hereafter EFF) publicized curricula for teaching children about copyright and intellectual property. The RIAA’s curriculum, intended for grades 3 through 8, was developed in 2006 but updated and re-released in 2009. The EFF’s curriculum, released for the first time in 2009, is geared toward grades 9 through 12. In this report, I will describe both curricula and the perspective that each one employs in its presentation of copyright law and briefly analyze their rhetoric. I will be using terms from Jessica Reyman’s book, The Rhetoric of Intellectual Property: Copyright Law and the Regulation of Digital Culture. Reyman examines the rhetorical workings of the content industries’ argument (she terms this “the property stewardship narrative”) and the copyright activists’ argument (which she calls “the cultural conservancy narrative”). Reyman makes a convincing case for taking public messages about copyright and intellectual property seriously, and these curricula serve as compelling examples of such messages. Below is a side-by-side listing of each curriculum’s objectives.

Objectives of the RIAA’s Curriculum, “Music Rules!”  Objectives of the EFF’s Curriculum, “Teaching Copyright”
  •  To introduce students to the concepts of copyright and intellectual property.
  • To help students recognize that taking music without paying for it (“songlifting”) is illegal and unfair to others.
  • To help students, teachers, and parents set guidelines for using technology like computers and the Internet responsibly.
  • To strengthen academic skills in reading, writing, mathematics, citizenship, and computer technology.
  • To encourage musical and artistic creativity.
  •  Reflect on what they already know about copyright law.
  • See the connection between the history of innovation and the history of copyright law.
  • Learn about fair use, free speech, and the public domain and how those concepts relate to using materials created by others.
  • Experience various stakeholders’ interests and master the principles of fair use through a mock trial.

The objectives alone reveal the political, economic, and rhetorical agendas of each curriculum, but I will go into the differences between these in more detail.

The RIAA’s Curriculum: “Music Rules!”

The RIAA’s curriculum, as one would expect, centers on copyright as granted to works of music, and the title of the curriculum is “Music Rules!” Students engage in a variety of activities: writing their own songs, solving math problems based on numbers provided by the RIAA explaining how much money recording companies lose through illegal downloading, and learning about the music industry and its jobs. Curriculum materials such as worksheets and brochures for students, teachers, and parents explain the process of recording music and break it down into these roles, all of which, the RIAA argues, are compromised due to illegal downloading:

  1. Talent Spotters: club owner, music scout, record company executives, mom.
  2. Tune Crafters: music producer, songwriters, arrangers, singer.
  3. Recording Artists: music producer, sound engineers, backup vocalists, instrumentalists, singer.
  4. Buzz Builders: music producer, publicist, designer, photographer, magazine publishers, poster distributors, music critics, radio DJs, music video broadcasters, TV talk show hosts, singer.
  5. Disc Wranglers: CD manufacturer, machine operators, printers, packagers, shipping manager, truck driver.
  6. Hit Merchants: store managers, sales clerks, cashiers, online vendors, online order handlers, mail carriers.

Also affected by illegal downloading, or what the RIAA terms “songlifting” in the curriculum, are new, struggling, up-and-coming musicians. One handout makes the point that  “[f]or every hit CD, there are nine more that never make it. But the hits actually help those other artists. With a hit, the record company can afford to give another group of newcomers their chance at stardom. So when hits get songlifted, lots of other artists lose out, too.” This parsing of the economics of the music business and emphasis on copyright law as the linchpin makes the RIAA’s agenda quite clear, but if it were not clear enough, they provide a list of “Brainstorming Ideas”:

Songlifters take millions of dollars of music each year.
Songlifters hurt all kinds of music makers, not just the stars.
Songlifters keep new artists from getting their chance at stardom.
Songlifters are breaking the law.
Songlifters can get other people in trouble by sharing illegal music.
Songlifters can get computer viruses when they illegally download online.
Songlifters don’t respect other people’s intellectual property.

I’m struck by how far this list is from how rhetoric and composition teachers think of “brainstorming,” which suggests open-ended questions and heuristics designed to help students find their own views on issues and explore their complexities. In fact, I also think of the charges of “indoctrination” made against many teachers who use methods from critical pedagogy – accusations of presenting political issues (which shouldn’t be in the curriculum at all, according to this view) in a one-sided manner. Apparently, though, a business organization is free to advance their agenda openly.

Teachers are even given a loyalty oath in the form of a “pledge sheet” and encouraged to have students sign it. For elementary school children, the document reads:

This is to certify that [student’s name] has learned the rules against songlifting and pledges to:
• Respect all forms of intellectual property.
• Obey the copyright laws that protect intellectual property.
• Always use computer technology responsibly.
• Always use Internet technology safely.
• Never accept illegal copies of songs online or on disc.
(student signature)
(teacher signature) (parent signature)

For middle-school children, the curriculum offers a “check sheet” that instructs them to:
• Respect all forms of intellectual property that you find on the Internet – text, images, videos, software, and songs.
• Look for permission from the copyright holder before downloading any free music that you find on the Internet.
• Avoid using unauthorized file-sharing software so that you keep your computer safe from viruses and your personal information safe from snoops and spyware.
• Delete any music that you receive by email and remind the person who sent it that sending copies of copyrighted music is illegal.
• Never accept a homemade CD that contains copyrighted music and remind the person who made it that he or she is breaking the law.
• Never provide personal information online without a parent’s permission.

Reyman uses the label of “the property stewardship narrative” to refer to the content industries’ arguments about copyright law. In this narrative, property stewards are official distributors (record companies, for example) who disseminate recordings of creative and intellectual work. We pay the property stewards for these recordings, who in turn pay the authors and artists. All the emphasis in the RIAA’s curriculum on the behind-the-scenes work of producing music should make its status as a property stewardship narrative clear. Only rarely does the RIAA’s curriculum discuss copyright in a less absolute and more even-handed way.

The EFF’s Curriculum, “Teaching Copyright”

The EFF announced the release of their curriculum, “Teaching Copyright,” on May 27, 2009. The main activities involved in their curriculum are reading assignments, short videos, discussions, and writing prompts in which the student must adopt the position of a stakeholder affected by copyright law. The lessons culminate in the mock trial of Disney v. Faden, based on a video the students watch in which information about fair use is presented from the mouths of Disney characters using short clips from Disney movies. The EFF’s curriculum is much more concerned with copyright law’s history and intent, and the perspectives of musicians who support peer-to-peer file sharing and people who create remixes and mashups online, making fair use of copyrighted material, are better represented. The EFF also showcases the importance of the public domain. The first activity is called “Copy Quiz” and functions as both a diagnostic tool to discern students’ knowledge of copyright and a discussion-starter. The emphasis on the public domain can be observed in the quiz (emphasis in original):

Adam recorded a video for his YouTube channel about the upcoming Senate elections and includes an official photo taken by a government employee and four bills authored by the incumbent that Adam found on the Senate’s website. That’s copyright infringement.
False. Works produced by the U.S. government, or any U.S. government agency, are in the public domain. The texts of legal cases and statutes produced by the federal government are also in the public domain. 
Justin downloaded the black-and-white horror classic Night of the Living Dead from the Internet Archive and decided to mix an audio sample from the film into one of his original songs. That’s copyright infringement.
False. The copyright for Night of the Living Dead is part of the wonderful wealth of the public domain. Justin is free to be as creative as he wants with public domain material.

Perhaps my own bias as a reader is in play here, but while the EFF has an obvious counter-agenda (“the wonderful wealth of the public domain”), they at least represent copyright law as it affects groups of people other than those in the music industry. They attempt to show the balance between copyright holders and the public and to show that artists are in the best position to create new intellectual and creative work if they are able to use others’ content. Reyman refers to this line of argument, made by copyright activists, as “the cultural conservancy narrative.” Culture is conserved and enriched by maintaining and continually replenishing a commons, or a public domain of content. Copyright law gives artists and authors an economic incentive to create new work, but it does not exist only to prevent others’ use of that work; copyright law also decrees that after the specified time limit, the work must go into the public domain to be distributed freely and used in the creation of new work. The cultural conservancy narrative is less simple, and it does not have the heroes and villains (pirates) of the property stewardship narrative. The EFF’s teaching task is daunting, but the attempt to raise public awareness of copyright and break down the fear and mystery surrounding it is necessary.

Implications for Rhetoric and Composition

Reyman shows, in The Rhetoric of Intellectual Property, that the content industries put a great deal of effort and money into relaying their messages about copyright to the public. Many internet users are paranoid about downloading or using anything: worried that their Internet Service Providers will know if they download copyrighted material, and afraid that if they use peer-to-peer networks, they will end up with viruses and spyware on their computers. Rhetoric that plays on audiences’ fears, creates a false dichotomy of “pay for it, or don’t download or use it at all,” and repeats a narrative with oversimplified good guys and bad guys is registering more clearly with the public than the copyright activists’ rhetoric. This fact alone connects the development of these curricula to rhetoric and composition studies, as well as the fact that these curricula are intended for teachers, who I assume are the majority of readers of this report. I also want to point out that colleges and universities have become central scenes for copyright rhetoric; as Reyman discusses in one chapter of her book, under the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, colleges and universities are required to teach students about “the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material” and “suggests that institutions use technology-based deterrents” to ensure that students do not download copyrighted files without permission or payment (117). That law is tied to higher education funding, which is particularly tenuous as of this writing. But I believe that even in this rhetorical context, these curricula can prove useful; perhaps we can use them both to create a new copyright curriculum for the college level, one that not only educates students about copyright law but also helps them become keener critics of rhetoric.

Works Cited

Electronic Frontier Foundation. Teaching Copyright. 2009.

Recording Industry Association of America. Music Rules! 2009.

Reyman, Jessica. The Rhetoric of Intellectual Property: Copyright Law and the Regulation of Digital Culture. New York: Routledge, 2010.

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