First there was the Boy Scouts' "Respect Copyrights" activity patch, backed by the Motion Picture Assn. of America.
Then there was "Crime-Fighting Canines," a weekly anti-piracy comic strip series for children in which two black Labrador retrievers named Lucky and Flo sniffed out bootleg DVDs. The series was part of a school education campaign led by the MPAA.
Now that group, along with the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the nation's main Internet service providers, is quietly backing another controversial push to educate schoolchildren about the evils of piracy.
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.
The proposed curriculum is still in draft stage, but it's already taking flak.
Some critics say the curriculum promotes the biased agenda of Hollywood studios and music labels. Others contend it would use up valuable classroom time when U.S. public schools are already struggling to teach the basics.
"While it's certainly a worthy topic of discussion with students, I'm sure some teachers would have a concern that adding anything of any real length to an already packed school day would take away from the basic curriculum that they're trying to get through now," said Frank Wells, spokesman for the California Teachers Assn.
The MPAA blames the illegal distribution of movies and TV shows for causing billions of dollars annually in lost revenue and damaging the livelihoods of workers who depend on the industry. The trade group has tried various tactics over the years to fight the problem, from filing lawsuits against college students who illegally downloaded movies to backing ill-fated federal laws that would shut down rogue websites.
The next battleground could be the classroom.
Called "Be a Creator," the proposed copyright curriculum is for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. It includes lesson plans, videos and activities for teachers and parents to help educate students about the "importance of being creative and protecting creativity," with topics such as "Respect the Person: Give Credit," "It's Great to Create," and "Copyright Matters."
The program is being prepared by the California School Library Assn. and the Internet Keep Safe Coalition, known as iKeepSafe, a nonprofit focused on helping children thrive in the digital environment. The group partners with educators, law enforcement agencies and major corporations, including Google, Comcast and AT&T.;
"It's important to prepare children to succeed and thrive and learn how to share and create and move files in a way that's ethical and responsible," said Marsali Hancock, president of iKeepSafe.
The MPAA declined to comment and referred calls to the Center for Copyright Information, which is also working with iKeepSafe on the curriculum.
Jill Lesser, the center's executive director, told a House subcommittee in September that she hoped the curriculum would be tested as a pilot program in California in the current academic year, and eventually be adopted at schools nationwide.
In one 45-second video for second-graders, a student browses his photograph collection to decide which photos he wants to give to friends, post online or sell to neighbors. After the video, the teacher is guided to say:
"You're not old enough yet to be selling your pictures online, but pretty soon you will be. And you'll appreciate if the rest of us respect your work by not copying it and doing whatever we want with it."
A lesson for sixth-graders likens using copyrighted material without permission to copying someone else's homework assignment.
A draft of the curriculum, first published by Wired magazine, 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.
"It sends the message that you always have to get permission before you can copy anything and that sharing is always theft and that if you violate copyright law all kinds of bad things will happen to you," said Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's a scare tactic."
Fabio Marino, intellectual property rights attorney with the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, added, "The idea of educating the public starting with children about copyrights is a good one, but if you're going to do it, you should do it in an unbiased way."
Even those who represent content owners have questioned the program.
"The idea that time would be taken out of kids' days to teach them copyright law, when they ought to be learning reading, writing and arithmetic, I find to be strange," said Stephen Smith, managing partner at the firm Greenberg Glusker and an expert on copyright law. "I just don't think it's appropriate curriculum for kindergartners to sixth-graders."
Hancock has said the criticism was "premature" because the curriculum was still in draft stage and had not yet been approved. She said legal doctrines such as "fair use" are more appropriate for teenagers and would be included in curriculum for middle and high school students, consistent with model public school library standards adopted by the state board of education.
IKeepSafe is working closely with a panel of education and digital media experts to strike a balanced approach, Hancock said, adding that the elementary school portion of the curriculum should be complete by early next year.
The Center for Copyright Information has not yet approved the curriculum, Lesser said. "It's unfortunate this got out because we were nowhere near done," she said.
The center — established two years ago in a pact among the nation's top Internet providers, the MPAA and others — implements the copyright alert system that notifies Internet users who download copyrighted information and reduces Internet speeds for repeat violators.
It also educates consumers about online piracy, a goal that aligns with the proposed school curriculum, Lesser said.
"We're on this road to try to figure out what concepts you can teach kids at what age and how best to protect our kids who are going online as young as 7 years old," she said. "I know this is a super-political issue."
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