Posted February 19, 2007

Communications prof wins MacArthur grant to explore tough media copyright issues

Temple faculty member Renee Hobbs, one of the nation’s leading experts on media literacy education, has received a $600,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to tackle one of the thorniest issues in her profession: In this age of burgeoning digital media and litigious intellectual property owners, how can educators effectively teach students how to analyze mass media without the threat of lawsuits every time an image, audio clip or video clip is used in class?

Hobbs, director of Temple’s Media Education Lab and an associate professor of communication in the School of Communications and Theater, and her co-investigators, Patricia Aufderheide of American University’s School of Communication and Peter Jaszi of American University’s Washington College of Law, will use the grant over the next two years to develop and distribute a “code of best practices” that reflects the emerging consensus among educators concerning the application of fair use and copyright clearance to media literacy education.

Without such a document, Hobbs says, educators’ and students’ ability to use common teaching tools such as editing segments of television shows or adding voiceover to video clips will be increasingly paralyzed by the fear of cease-and-desist letters from lawyers.

Statements of best practices have been used as powerful tools by other professional communities who use media in their work, such as documentary filmmakers. By establishing principles of fair use — the notion that users have rights to use copyrighted material depending on the purpose of their work and other factors — documentary filmmakers have been able to reduce crippling restrictions, such as having to pay for the rights to use the copyright-protected song “Happy Birthday” if it had been captured during the filming of a birthday party.

“Like documentary filmmakers, art historians, DJs, and artists, media literacy educators also use media to do our work,” said Hobbs, author of the recent book Reading the Media: Media Literacy in High School English (Teachers College Press). “By developing our own statement of best practices, we will empower educators and students with the recognition that copyright law protects us, too.”

With the recent explosion of media-sharing Web sites such as and new creative forms such as video mash-ups and audio sampling, Hobbs believes that the need for clarity and consensus among media literacy educators is more urgent than ever.

“In this age of user-generated content,” Hobbs said, “the goal is balancing the needs of the creators and the users.”

Hobbs, Aufderheide and Jaszi will first conduct research on challenges faced by media literacy educators. Then, after working with media literacy professional organizations to develop consensus, the team will draft a statement of best practices and conduct outreach and publicity efforts to maximize its use.