Proper Tea is Theft

Simon Finch Posted by Simon Finch on July 21, 2010

It’s an old joke, barely a joke at all – bit like copyright laws really.

Why do marxists only drink tea made with tea bags?

Because property is theft.

I thank you, start the car, taxi for simfin.

An alternative title for this post could be:

Why We’re Happy to Teach Our Learners to Steal

So. I’ve had ‘copyright/IPR’ on my ‘to-do’ list for over a year and still struggling to make sense of it all. I know where I need to be; we want some ‘simple guidance’ for schools to ‘put on our website’. Trouble is you can’t do simple guidance for something as complicated, at times perverse and, as I hope to outline here, at odds with the values and behaviours of teachers and our society.

Here’s where we are going with this. We’re a nation of thieves with no respect for other people’s property, ideas or economic well being and we’re happily sharing this immorality with our learners in our schools.

A long time ago I was a teenager in the ’70s and music was a huge part of my, and my friends’, lives. Unlike today, the only place I could see Slade, Status Quo, David Bowie and pals was on Top of the Pops. Half an hour, once a week. (I’m being a tad disingenuous – there was often a pop group on ‘Crackerjack‘)

We had much more choice when it came to radio though – the impressive Radio 1 or Radio Luxembourg both in whistling mono on medium wave.

Fortunately for us disciples of subversive culture some of us had a crummy cassette recorder and by holding a mike to the telly, or radio we could record our fave bands, and, frustratingly, a few words from the DJ at the start and end of the song. It was when stereo, hi-fi and the ubiquitous ‘music centre’ came along that we saw true stealing sharing by families and friends. ‘Tape it for us will ya?’ became part of everyone’s vocabulary – in fact you would be reprimanded if you bought the same album as a friend ‘Why did you buy that when I’d have taped it for you – you should have got ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway‘ and taped it for me’. And so, we see the beginnings of the notion that it’s ok to steal from the Big Boys – those record companies making so much money from us poor teenagers, and our not so poor parents and their peers.

I think at that time we had some perverse logic that if one of us bought the record then that was okay – and certainly seems to be a tad less dishonest than today’s youth where nobody seems to have paid for the album, choosing to download from some dodgy (yet institutionalised) website. Lord (three strikes and you lose your internet connection) Mandelson was prompted to act, he says, when he discovered that only one in twenty downloaded tunes was downloaded legally. Anyway back then it appeared to us that bands had untold wealth and surely they’d not miss my £5 for their album?

So that was that; music for the masses via the humble cassette tape.

(Let’s rewind for a moment. ‘File sharing’? It’s a bit like ‘joyriding’ – and ‘collateral damage’ – euphemisms to make us feel better about our crimes against humanity.)

Enter then the video recorder. How could it be illegal to copy videos when high street stores sold the technology to do so? I remember the somewhat bizarre conflicting messages around ‘yes you can record TV programmes but you can’t show them to anyone.’

By this time (1984) I was a young world changing English teacher in an inner city ‘challenging’ secondary school – in Thatcher’s Britain. We had no budget and kids in families approaching 3 generations of unemployment. So I bought a ghetto blaster and spent the following years recording plays and music from the radio and films, documentaries and drama from the television. Don’t get me started on books. When we could afford books (Of Mice and Men, Buddy, 18th Emergency) – the kids liked them so much they kept them! I remember we had so few copies they’d often share one between three.

So I was the photocopying king, like some master counterfeiter, churning out resources ‘for the kids’. I’m sure at that time I thought I’d happily go to prison for them – if I didn’t teach them, then what chance did they have?

So there we were, a nation of thieving teachers stealing other people’s work and justifying it with a higher moral ground and a collective sense of righteousness.

Let’s whoosh on into the 90′s. By this time I’d expanded my criminal activity to encompass Macs, desktop publishing and a very challenging 14.4 modem to access all 15 websites available globally for the committed teacher. As an empowered Mac user there was no stopping me and it is here that I perhaps differed from my PC colleagues who were happily copying clipart and program discs for their Windows 3.1 PCs. In some weird spat of loyalty to the minority Mac community I paid for all my software. I was the one who bought ClarisWorks thinking that somewhere stateside I was helping to keep Apple in business (I didn’t say I was normal).

Imagine my delight in the opportunity to say goodbye to my Brother portable typewriter and endless packets of Letraset. No more crude attempts at making a NASA logo for my class trips to space. No more attempts to make Newspaper mastheads. I could go to The Guardian’s website and take myself a copy of theirs. I can remember lolloping around the school to show colleagues the quality of my kids’ newspapers. Let’s not forget my creative teaching of the apostrophe. Grabbing cartoon characters from Disney and Looney Toons websites for the kids to make posters like this:


Simple yet effective and powerful task – one I replicated again in the noughties with images of mobile phones, cyberbullying etc. Providing even the most reluctant writer the opportunity to succeed and write for a real audience.

Of course I wasn’t alone, there are technology and ICT teachers across the land who have encouraged learners to source content from the interweb and it is only in recent times that we can see that some have ceased ‘because the exam board won’t let us’ – not exactly the best reason – and I’m getting to that in a moment.

He that steals a cow from a poor widow, or a stirk from a cottar, is a thief; he that lifts a drove from a Sassenach laird, is a gentleman-drover. And, besides, to take a tree from the forest, a salmon from the river, a deer from the hill, or a cow from a Lowland strath, is what no Highlander need ever think shame upon.

-Scott, Sir Walter
Evan Dhu Maccombich to EdwardWaverley.Waverley, ch.18.

Okay, where am I going with this? Our man Walter has hit the nail on the head. It has been the view that it’s an ‘Us and Them’ world. We, the poor downtrodden under-funded, doing-good ‘for the kids’ teachers have traditionally ‘bent’ the rules because that’s what ‘normal’ people do. We are a nation of cassette and video recording, floppy disc copying, CD burning, right click saving internet voyagers enhancing the learning experience for the next/this generation’s learners. The anti-piracy warnings at the beginning of DVDs prompt universal derision- ‘You wouldn’t steal a car’ – ‘I would if I could download one’.

All this can be achieved because traditionally we don’t see the whites of the eyes of the fat cats from whom we are acquiring content and resources.


It’s different now.

Web 2.0, and the rest, is making us a world of creators and publishers. We’re uploading pictures, music, videos, Flash activities, personal writing, presentations, teaching resources and more – and so are our learners. That image that you’ve found is just the thing to add value and impact to the learning activity for that needy class of yours. But that image doesn’t belong to an international image company – no, it belongs to someone like you..

Now that’s different isn’t it?

Can you look a person in the eyes if you know they know you’ve taken something of theirs?

It’s 2010 and I’ve recently attended conferences where my resources have been re -presented by other speakers (did they know I’d be there when they created the presentation? Would it have made a difference?)

Intellectual Property – ’tis an interesting idea. Does it extend to my tweets on Twitter. Several times now I’ve seen my tweets passed off as someone else’s. Should I care?

My blog on eSafety appears on another site – did they need to ask me first?

Did they need to seek copyright permission?

We are all producers and creators. Web 2.0 sees learners and teachers mingling together in a complicated collection of communication tools from YouTube to Facebook and I believe we’ve missed the most important message when considering copyright.

Currently our thinking has been around the threats of being caught. Schools and individuals will be faced with hefty fines if their crime can be proven. Well yes, sad I suppose and nobody likes to have their money taken from them do they? Yet the real point is this; we must teach our learners to value IPR. It is simply wrong to take without asking. It is wrong to pass what’s not yours, as your own. We need to instil respect for one and other – that is our priority.

I don’t even think it’s all about money – it’s about acknowledging people’s value.

The top image belongs to Meg Pickard – the one below appears in a Horlicks advert. You can read Meg’s account of how the companies concerned responded when she indicated they had used her image and her ‘idea’ without permission.

So, in the absence of a better suggestion, I’m all for creative commons. It allows us to build a respect for creativity, IPR and collaboration. We should be building this into our teaching; ‘That’s a great poem Jimmy lad, hop onto the CC site and get your IPR sorted. Have you thought about whether you want to allow people to add to it or would you prefer them to only read it as you intended?

Seems to me I’ve had a good idea there. You can copy it if you like.


2 Responses to “Proper Tea is Theft”

  1. Nick Sharratt says:

    I mostly agree, just a slightly different take on the conclusion.

    As you argue, “everyone does it and always has” seems to be recognised by everyone informally, as long as someone is paying the creators, Market forces sort the rest out.

    Of course, this doesn’t apply to systemic abuse making money from ripping off other’s work, but is quietly accepted with a nod and a wink for informal barter.

    My conclusion differs though. While cc licenses are great, I try to adopt the “don’t be a hipocrite” route and apply as open a cc as possible while only limiting use for financial gain (without at least letting me know) for things I create – but then, I’m creating for myself not for profit, which is where things would need to change.?

  2. Lawrence Williams Lawrence Williams says:

    I entirely agree with you, Simon, about intellecual property rights, and the necessity of training our young people to respect these.

    But, as teachers, are we not also secretly pleased when others adopt our ideas, even if unwittingly? I should have been delighted to see my own teaching ideas presented at that conference – imitation being the sincerest form of flattery… No joke.

    Nice article. Please write more.

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