Students using other intellectual property: where's the line?

Note the first: I’m talking about third-graders here. That’s really significant.

A ginormous component of our writing curriculum entails “personal narratives,” basically memoirs for the eight-year-old crowd. Some kids totally get into it, but a lot of kids believe, justly IMO, that their lives don’t necessarily support writing a memoir yet. They get bored to death of writing about when they went bike-riding, or the time they ate at Wendy’s, or whatever.

So this month I’m doing what I usually do in January, and striking off on my own into the world of fantasy writing. Most of the kids love it, since fantasy stories form such a significant part of their experience with stories, and it allows their imaginations to run wild.

Every year, I tell my kids that they can write stories set in the real world, or they can make up their own worlds, but they cannot use a world that someone else made up (or characters that someone else made up). New York City is fine, Smaddypaddy Fire World is fine, but Middle Earth is off-limits. I want them to be creative, not just tell the story that someone else tells.

And every year there are some kids that really, really struggle with the idea. They want to write about Batman, or they want to write about Mo Willems’s pigeon, or something.

Today I had my first head-butting of the year with a kid over this issue. He wanted to write a story about Dinosaur Voltron, and he was talking about the TV show (FWIW, I don’t think this is an actual show–it may be connected to Power Rangers’ Zords, something else creeping into his story). I was trying to explain to him that he could write about dinosaur robots, but not dinosaur Voltrons, and in his look of irritated confusion I had an epiphany: as a creature of the media, he draws no distinction at all between nouns like robot and nouns like Voltrons.

So that got me thinking about the OP’s question. Should I continue to try to enforce a ban on using other folks’ intellectual property, on the assumption that it’ll force kids to be more creative? Or am I making an arbitrary and artificial distinction, since someone else also created the idea of robots, and borrowing the concept of Voltrons just means their writing will be fanfic, and has no real intellectual distinction as long as they’re not sued by an overzealous publisher?

I think at that age it’s more important to get them writing than to worry about how original they are. Fanfic will allow them to substitute for their own experiences, which are limited.

That’s especially true with fantasy. How much of it are the exposed to? Probably just TV shows and movies, and they likely will be more comfortable writing about what they’re familiar with. The idea of intellectual property might also be difficult for them to grasp.

I’d either have them stick with things they are familiar with – real life things they have experience – or expect that they will be writing fanfic at that age.

I’m a strong believer in strong IP rules, but in this case, it’s not worth making an issue of it.

I think it would be far more educational for the kids to learn how to come up with original stories. I grew up in the era of media saturation too (Transformers, Strawberry Shortcake, She-Ra and He-Man, GI Joe, etc.). I wrote a lot of stories as a kid and I was still able to come up with original ideas.
I believe that creativity is a skill that can be learned. You can learn to brainstorm and look for inspiration. If a kid came to me with an idea about a story about Batman I would try to encourage him to use that as a jumping off point but to try to think of ways that he can make that idea into something new and cool that was his own.

If the goal of the lesson is to have them write personal narratives (or is this task a break from that?), then I don’t see why creative writing where they have the option of using their favorite toys is problematic. Intellectual property may be a little too abstract for them and the fanfic style of writing isn’t illegal anyway.

I think you should focus on the writing task over the content. Maybe let them share their stories with the class. The ones with the boring Voltron stories will see how lame they are relative to a more creative story and may change their behavior in the future.

Or tell them that if they want to use somebody else’s world, they have to use a third party’s characters. Transformers conquer Middle Earth. Hobbits in Wonderland. Spongebob meets Godzilla. That sort of thing. The goal is to get them interested in writing first, and then get them to be original.

eta: It isn’t any easier with high schoolers, btw. :smiley:

Let them write fan-fic if they want. At that age they don’t get it. (Hell, there is an internet worth of fan-fic whose authors don’t get it.)

Last year my fifth grade daughter participated in writing a collaborative novel with other fifth graders. It was a novel with 12 Mary Sues (well, some of the were Larrys) and names and place names borrowed from a ton of other sources. Unreadable dreck (and I say that as a fond parent of one of the authors). My daughter was about the only one who “got” that lifting characters and settings from other sources was a no-no - and she has lived with parents who discuss such things (she knows what a Mary Sue is).

Explain to them that writing is a craft, and the rules get more complex later - including what you can and can’t borrow from someone else - like using Batman as a character - but for now, you aren’t going to worry about those rules (that way, later, when the rules “change” they’ll understand those rules were always there, they just weren’t previously enforced). When my son started playing baseball, the coach pitched, you didn’t count outs, and every inning every batter got a turn. Then the machine pitched and you counted outs - but you couldn’t steal or run on an overthrow. Then they could steal, but only one base and not home. Now its pretty close to “real baseball.”

(Slash is right out though)

I’m of the belief that good storytelling comes more from the hows than the whats. Doesn’t “Batman in Jurassic Park” (a la silenus) sound more interesting than “Flying Squirrelman fights crime with cape and gadgets”? There are only so many character archetypes, and even accomplished storytellers recycle them with small variations. On the other hand, there’s so much more diversity in how said archetypes can react to a thousand different scenarios.

If you allow their uncreativity along one axis – the characters – you might just get them to flex their ideas along another axis: what those characters actually do.

I totally understand where you’re coming from. I made my daughter include a Works Cited page for her one page research paper on sharks, although the teacher didn’t require it. She’s in first grade. :smiley:

But I do think that getting them excited about writing is the important part. I guess I’d meet him halfway, and tell him he could write about Voltron if he wants, but because Voltron “belongs” to someone else, he’s got to include credit where credit is due. I don’t know that he has to look up who holds the copyright on Voltron, but a line somewhere at the beginning or end like, “This story based on the characters and world of Voltron”. This would, I think, get across the point that we respect other people’s creations and don’t steal them and present them as our creations, while still letting him write about what he really wants to write about.

In fantasy, particular, I’d let them borrow. World building may be a little beyond a kid that age. I went through a phase writing fanfic (like, a lot of it). It was an excellent way to learn the mundane details of writing (that you MUST get good at, and practice like a piano player)-- dialog, description, pacing, etc., without the commitment of building an entire world every time I wanted a change of scenery.

Kudos to you for allowing creative writing, though. I am an avid writer, and I despised being required to “journal” in school. My day to day life was boring and my feelings/intimate thoughts were none of my teacher’s and/or class’s business. I struggled mightily with a single weekly journal entry, while churning out pages and pages of [terrible] fiction.

I did love the assignments where I’d be asked to re-tell/write about the experience of a family member. Like I’m the right age where it fit to say “Ask your grandparents/some other older adult their experience with WWII, and write about it.” (My mother was NOT amused when Grandpa mentioned french prostitutes in his tale, but that’s my Grandpa)

The idea of what we consider originality itself at this age is meaningless. They’re too young to come up with things that match the adult standard of “originality”–which in many ways is a conceit in and of itself. Ideas don’t pop into our heads out of thin air, and these children haven’t lived long enough to negotiate the socially acceptable line referred to in the OP title.

I think it’s more important, at least at that age, to have them enjoy writing instead of pushing then to be original. While originality is very important, I know what it’s like to have to read or write something you’d rather not. In K-12 (and now, in college) I loved reading in writing. I hate having to read or write something when I’m restricted, and I don’t try as hard when such an assignment comes up. I’m bored with it so I just do the bare minimum. Maybe these kids aren’t like me, but maybe they are.
Allowing some use of the characters or settings that they love shouldn’t hurt. If you’re not already in the practice, have them go over their story ideas with you and try to make some kind of fair criteria. I think the students will do better when they enjoy what they’re doing… they’ll put more time into it, have more pride in their work, etc.
At the same time, try to encourage complete originality. I’m definitely not a teacher, but this seems like a tough thing to do.

To me creative writing is in a way like math class. Some kids in the same age group are going to be ready for long division while others are struggling with fractions.

I don’t see why creative writing isn’t the same. Some of the kids may be able to come up with original and interesting landscapes and characters and some are going to need a starting point to jump off from.

Why not do both? Break it down into two writing assignments, one creative and one derivative/fanfic. For the creative assignment, use the limitations you currently have–they *have *to invent a whole new place, or whole new characters, or both. For the derivative assignment, they *have *to write about existing fictional characters or existing fictional places (or both). Explain what derivative works are, and why they should avoid doing them in other classes unless the teacher specifies otherwise. It’d make for a great teaching moment! :slight_smile:

In a nutshell, creatively describing alternative scenarios using existing intellectual property is a whole separate ballpark from than creating one’s own IP from scratch. I don’t see a reason you can’t make both aspects into separate assignments. Some people just don’t have the skillset to do both (present company included). If you teach your students that derivative writing exists, and when it’s (in)appropriate to use it, you may create kids who enjoy writing in their free time… instead of kids who think writing is a stupid chore they only do when their teacher assigns it.