Alexander Watkins

It all started when a librarian wanted a cake with a 19th-century picture of Frankenstein’s monster on it. Much to everyone’s surprise the baker refused to make such a cake, claiming it would be a copyright violation. The whole endeavor ended in failure when nothing could convince the wayward baker that the image is in the public domain with no copyright at all. Unfortunately, when it comes to copyright “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” All too often, it’s a warning that also describes copyright and fair use instruction in libraries. A little bit of copyright knowledge can result in an overly restrictive interpretation that fails to acknowledge the fair use rights of users. Like the well-intentioned monster himself, it can do more harm than good.

When art information professionals are asked to teach students about copyright, the request is often intended to scare students rather than teach them how to take advantage of their rights. How then do we get students and teachers to the point that knowledge of copyright and fair use is empowering rather than restricting, where students know their obligations but also the limits of copyright? The College Art Association (CAA) Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, with its easily understandable language, is a key tool in ensuring copyright instruction helps student fully exercise their rights. The lesson plans in this book all use the Code to create learning experiences that empower students to understand copyright and take advantage of fair use in their art, design, and academic practices.

Copyright and fair use instruction is part of the expanding role of art information professionals, and one that many of us may be hesitant to undertake. The lesson plans in this book will help those new to copyright instruction teach the Code through engaging activities and assignments. The lesson plans are also meant to inspire teachers experienced with fair use instruction through creative ideas and new ways to integrate copyright instruction into art classes, digital humanities projects, and design education.

The lesson plans all incorporate active learning components and many integrate concepts from the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy. Active creative work is frequently used in these lesson plans to have students not just learn about fair use but enact it. These innovative approaches will hopefully not just bank information about fair use with students but help them integrate it into their own artistic and knowledge practices.

Understanding copyright and fair use is a key component of visual literacy and has only become more important in our image-saturated world. Students are existing in an online world full of digital images and media, and are often reusing and remixing them in their online life. Visual literacy  and fair use can also be directly transferable to student’s real life careers, especially for those in art and design disciplines. The lesson plans in this book aim to motivate student learning by demonstrating the relevance of fair use to students’ daily lives and professional practices.

Fair Use & Transformativity

The concept of transformativity is at the heart of fair use. Everything from databases to artworks to search engines to scholarly articles can be transformative. Understanding the many ways one work can transform another is key to putting fair use into practice.  The lesson plans in this section use innovative techniques to get students to grapple with the concept of transformativity.

Leslie Christianson and Amanda Avery contributed an extremely creative lesson plan that focuses on the idea of transformativity. Students create mind maps of concepts present in appropriation art and the work it appropriates. This has students develop visual literacy skills while also demonstrating the power of art to transform works and create new meaning.

Lijuan Xu and Nestor Gil collaborated to create a lesson and assignment that helps art students learn about appropriation by actually doing it. The class divides into two groups to debate the Prince v. Cariou appropriation case. This active learning is then reinforced through an assignment in which students create a work of appropriation art that transforms its subject.

Fair Use & Zine Making

Zine culture is built on appropriation and self-expression. Creating zines is low-barrier and inexpensive, making it an ideal form for student work. Transformative use is often built into zines, and fair use is a key right in zine making. As libraries build zine collections these lessons can be used to inspire new zines, which may further enrich a fledgling collection.

Emilee Matthews uses zines to get students to grapple with issues of identity and community. Students use fair use as a tool to consider ethical and legal considerations around appropriation in the making of zines.

Lindsey Reynolds’s lesson plan comes out of a museum library setting in which art students appropriated library and museum collection images to create original zines. The lesson plan uses critiques to have students demonstrate understanding, as students explain and defend their appropriation in front of an audience of their peers.

Fair Use & Ethics

Often when we approach appropriation and copyright we think solely about whether or not we are legally permitted to use a work. But we don’t want students to become, to paraphrase Jurassic Park, so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they don’t stop to think if they should. Unfortunately, power dynamics of race, class, and gender frequently recur in art appropriation, and students should think about the effects of using someone else’s image.

Jessica Hronchek’s lesson plan uses the Code to have students research case studies and present their findings. Her lesson engages the legal and ethical implications of appropriation practice as she asks students to differentiate between these issues.

Laura Dimmit has students grapple with both moral and economic rights in her lesson plan. Students engage with contemporary case studies that raise the question of how later modification can change an artist’s meaning. Students must work through how transformation can create a fair use case while also raising difficult questions about  artists’ moral rights.

Fair Use & Appropriation Art

Students can’t fully understand fair use in the art world without knowledge of the historical precedents of artistic appropriation. Reuse in art is by no means new, and this long history can help students understand context. Examples of recent case studies help students follow the explosion of appropriation in contemporary art and the changing legal interpretations around fair use.

Molly Shoen’s lesson plan casts students in the role of judge. Using case studies she has students evaluate fair use cases and pronounce their verdict. Discussion is generated by revealing the judge’s ruling and comparing to student verdicts, as well as to contemporary fair use law.

Allan Kohl introduces students to a wide range of issues relating to appropriation, law, and ethics in arts, focusing on empowering students to build upon works created by others. He uses copious visual examples to illustrate the concepts, including local examples of appropriation art.

Fair Use & Professional Practice

Copyright and fair use issues don’t end when students graduate. One of the reasons copyright and fair use instruction is so valuable is that it can be even more important for professional practice. The demonstrated relevancy of these skills can motivate student learning.

Karyn Hinkle’s lesson plan has students applying fair use to create a technical how-to manual. Her innovative lesson combines technical writing skills with visual literacy and image use. Students are also asked to think about how fair use will apply in professional situations.

Cindy Derrenbacker presents a lesson plan that deals with fair dealing, architectural practice, and professional ethics. Her lesson helps student think about architectural inspiration and cross-pollination through both an ethical and a copyright lens. She addresses how we can teach students skills that are transferable to their professional practice in terms of legal practices, professional attribution, and credit-sharing.

Fair Use & Art History

Fair use isn’t just important to artists, it’s equally important for art historians.  Writing art history without employing fair use means paying expensive image permissions. The cost can be so prohibitive that it affects art historians’ choice of subject. However, art historical analysis can be a transformative fair use, a right that is getting increasing buy-in from art publishers.

Bridget Madden has created a tool for authors to track their images and fair use rationale. Her lesson plan is built for developing art history scholars, teaching them key skills for academic success.

Meredith Wisner takes a critical perspective on copyright for art history students working on digital humanities projects. She has students grapple with the inequalities of copyright law and how fair use represents one way for individuals to challenge power structures in art.


Fair use instruction is an exciting opportunity for art information professionals. It presents the chance to work with students to teach them not just about copyright, but about image ethics, appropriation, and transformation—all vital components of visual literacy.  Key to making the most of these opportunities is moving beyond lectures about the dangers of image reuse filled with outdated and overly draconian interpretations of copyright. Instead, we must work to empower students to make truly informed decisions about their image use, armed with full knowledge of their rights and responsibilities—both legal and ethical.


Fair Use in the Visual Arts: Lesson Plans for Librarians Copyright © 2018 by Alexander Watkins. All Rights Reserved.

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