Hitting Pause on Class Videos

A trade group goes after UCLA for posting copyrighted videos on course Web sites -- and hints that other colleges might be next.
January 26, 2010

In the latest clash of copyright law and instructional technology, the University of California at Los Angeles has stopping allowing faculty members to post copyrighted videos on their course Web sites after coming under fire from an educational media trade group.

The policy, enacted earlier this month, has been planned since last fall, when the Association for Information and Media Equipment — a group that protects the copyrights of education media companies — charged the university with violating copyright laws by posting the videos to the password-protected course Web pages without the proper permissions.

So far, UCLA is the only institution the organization has accused of such infractions. However, Allen Dohra, its president, told Inside Higher Ed that it is prepared to take on other colleges if it becomes clear that similar practices are taking place elsewhere. “We have leads in terms of other universities, and we do plan to investigate further,” said Dohra.

While the university maintains it has violated no laws, it has agreed to temporarily halt the practice while it tries to reach a settlement with the association. “We don’t want to litigate an issue that could potentially be resolved outside of the legal system,” said a university spokesman.

Copyright law does include exemptions for professors who wish to use audiovisual media “in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction” — so long as the professor is not showing media that he or she knows has been made illegally. The university said streaming the video on a password-protected Web site, where only students who are registered members of the class can access it, satisfies these criteria.

But the trade group is arguing that a password-protected space on the Web is not a classroom. “The face-to-face teaching exemption allows a video to be played in class, not streamed to the classroom from a remote location,” Dohra said in an e-mail. “As to the fair use claim, when videos are streamed to students outside the classroom, password protection may limit access to some degree. However, requiring a password doesn’t make an infringement fair use.”

Dohra added, “A password that allows access to videos that are illegally copied from DVDs and encoded into a school's platform is nothing but a password to ill-gotten gain.”

Disruptive Effect

Regardless of the legality of online video-streaming, it is practiced widely enough at UCLA that the new policy probably will cause some disruptions for students and faculty, said Robin L. Garrell, a chemistry professor and chair of the Academic Senate.

Garrell said the new policy stands to affect not just film classes, but courses in many other disciplines — political science, foreign language, even the natural sciences — where professors have integrated copyrighted films and video clips into their syllabuses. The professors who teach those courses, she said, have had to choose between eliminating the films from their syllabuses or telling their students to either purchase their own copies, rent the titles from a commercial vendor, or check them out of the university’s media lab.

Requiring students to borrow from the media lab might prove problematic, Garrell added, since the lab stores a limited number of copies. Plus, the lab’s hours of operation were trimmed this year as part of the university’s budget cuts.

“I do not see how the viewing of these movies for language instruction would in any way undermine the bottom line of the companies that produce them,” said Robert Cargill, an instructional technology coordinator at the university, noting that foreign language professors were among the most frequent users of online film-streaming. “If anything, it exposes a new crop of students to foreign films they would not otherwise view, which would lead to new potential audiences and revenue streams untapped by many foreign production studios.”

Time to Click ‘Refresh’?

The implications of the challenge extend well beyond practical inconveniences on the UCLA campus, said Tracy Mitrano, an information scholar and director of IT policy at Cornell University. “It touches on this much larger issue of the dissonance between technology and law that has a deleterious effect on higher education’s missions,” Mitrano said.

Existing copyright law does not adequately address the momentous technological advances that have occurred since the law was written in 1976, she said, echoing the refrain of a number of other scholars — including Harvard University’s Lawrence Lessig, who argued the point in a keynote speech at last fall’s Educause conference.

“There are very legitimate and important arguments on both sides,” said Mitrano, noting the importance of maintaining strong incentives for the creation of new original work. However, the situation at UCLA is the latest reminder that copyright law needs to be rewritten before it does any more damage, she said.

“Copyright has been and continues to be a significant impediment in academic research and instruction,” said Mitrano. “Content owners and higher-education administrators and faculty, together with the associations that represent them, must sit down and figure out appropriate licensing, clearance, and fair use provisions in order not to hamper American higher education, if not global education, in pursuit of its mission.”

But Dohra called such arguments red herrings. “Those theorists know that the Copyright Act has been modified many times in the past 34 years to deal with new technologies,” he said. “Indeed, some of the revisions have actually expanded educational privileges. There is nothing inconsistent with adherence to copyright law and sound educational practices.”

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