Copyright approval of classroom materials, particularly for online courses, is a major issue for colleges: Many faculty members (if they think about it at all) view it as a hassle, and college lawyers and academic technologists at some campuses lay awake at night worrying about lawsuits from publishers challenging their professors’ failure to seek permission for works they’ve used.
Today, the Copyright Clearance Center is announcing a new effort  aimed at making it easier for professors (and hence their institutions) to ensure that they are complying with copyright law governing the use of academic materials, by integrating the copyright permission process directly into the software colleges use to build and manage online courses.
The Copyright Permissions Building Block, which the clearance center is offering through a partnership with Blackboard, will allow professors at the 1,200 colleges that use Blackboard’s course management system, to automatically tap into the copyright center’s authorization process (which about 1,000 colleges use) as they build their courses, to make it easier for faculty members to get permission to use the materials they choose.
Officials at the Copyright Clearance Center -- which was chartered by Congress in the late 1970s to serve as an intermediary between publishers and other content creators and businesses and academic institutions that seek to use that content – said the organization hopes to work with the makers of other course management systems to design similar functionality.
The idea of integrating copyright permissioning directly into the course-building process struck analysts of higher education technology and campus technology officials as a promising development.
“In a time when paying attention to copyright is kind of a hot topic, Copyright Clearance Center has proactively worked with Blackboard to develop this very highly integrated tool to help faculty members register the works they’re using,” said Cathy Burdt, lead analyst for postsecondary solutions at
Eduventures, an education research firm. Burdt described that registration process now as “inconsistent” from campus to campus and even among individual professors on a particular campus – “sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t,” she said.
“By providing a utility that is integrated, you’re taking the guesswork away somewhat,” she added. “That’s a net gain for publishers who want to protect their copyrights, professors who want to use a wide variety of works, and universities that are trying to build business processes to manage tasks such as these.”
The University of Texas System uses Blackboard for the UT TeleCampus  through which it offers all online courses for the system’s 15 campuses. Compared to many institutions, Texas is highly aware of and aggressive about copyright issues; it requires all professors who offer distance courses to go through a copyright “crash course”  designed by Georgia K. Harper, a lawyer who oversees intellectual property for the Texas system and is a national expert on academic copyright.
But while most of its professors “do a really good job” fulfilling the requirement for ensuring that they have met copyright guidelines, says Darcy Hardy, director of the UT TeleCampus, “some of them skip it, thinking, ‘This is so small, no one will ever notice.’ “ The hassle of identifying who owns the copyright is often a deterrent, she adds.
TeleCampus officials will typically uncover the oversight when they are reviewing the course, Hardy says, but copyright issues continue to concern many of those in academe who are responsible for ensuring compliance. “One of these days somebody is going to get their butt slammed and we’ll all pay attention,” Hardy says.
That’s why the Copyright Clearance Center’s arrangement with Blackboard has appeal, Hardy says. "Having a building block that will do this will help with liability issues, both for professors and for us. Being able to access it directly from within Blackboard is going to be killer.”