Q&A: Mastering Copyright in the Classroom

November 17, 2016 BY PATRICK LOFTUS
Updated: January 4, 2018


Professors and classroom instructors, has this ever happened to you?

You find a great image, video, PDF or other form of digital media on the internet and you’d love to share it with your class… but you don’t know if you have permission.

Or maybe you want want to add captions to a third-party video file for accessibility purposes but you’re not sure if that would violate copyright law.

How do you know when it’s okay to share and modify media you don’t own?

Navigating copyright law isn’t actually as hard as it seems. Armed with a basic knowledge of how copyright laws work in North America, it is easy to determine which media is okay to share and when.

In our webinar with Dr. Tom Tobin, author, professor, copyright enthusiast and Coordinator of Learning Technologies at Northeastern Illinois University, a few of those digestible, simple rules of thumb for staying on the right side of North American copyright law were discussed.

Read on for some helpful tips and highlights from the Q and A session:

How are the TEACH Act and DMCA related to copyright use in higher education?

DMCA and TEACH Act were designed to close loopholes […] And this is actually one of the reasons why you can show a whole film in your physical classroom…

TOM TOBIN: The TEACH Act (Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization) and
the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) are laws that were passed in the late 1990s and early 2000s to try to close loopholes in the 1976 Copyright Act. And they usually have to do with digital media, because during 1976, we had 8-track tapes and movies on 35-millimeter film and things like that. But we didn’t really have the internet revolution yet.

And so [with] the TEACH Act and the DMCA, I can point you to the University of Texas at Austin. Their libraries have a really fantastic quick guide to the TEACH Act.

[…] At a real top level though, DMCA and TEACH Act were designed to close loopholes in the copyright law so that you could make copies under fair use without running into some of the broadcasting restrictions that the FCC has put in place.

And this is actually one of the reasons why you can show a whole film in your physical classroom by pressing play on your player and showing it on a television screen.

But you can’t copy that whole film and put it into your online course environment and let your online students see it, because that’s considered broadcast. That’s one of the loopholes that is still open in that.

So I’d encourage you to take a look at that University of Texas at Austin library presentation. It’ll take you about 10 more minutes if you want to do a deeper dive into DMCA and the TEACH Act.

Can licenses restrict our fair use rights? Library databases often have very tough restrictions.

So if a license says you may only make a copy of this and share it with people on Wednesdays in months that have an R in them when there’s a full moon, you have to abide by that.

TOM TOBIN: Well, licenses cannot restrict your fair use rights. But remember, licenses and permission trump the law.

So if a license says you may only make a copy of this and share it with people on Wednesdays in months that have an R in them when there’s a full moon, you have to abide by that. Now you might not make the copy if the restrictions were that crazy. But licenses are agreements between two people so that they don’t have to rely on the broader law. So licenses are almost always more restrictive than the fair use rights that you have.

Now, if you wanted to, say, download a copy of something from your library databases and keep that copy on your hard drive, you actually do have a good fair use case for doing that, because it’s for the purpose of research or scholarship. It’s when you start making that copy available to others and sharing it that you have to really take a look at what your licenses tell you. And the right people on your campus who can tell you what those licenses allow you to do are your librarians. So good question to ask on that one.

What if my institution has a new rule regarding material created at the college that states it’s theirs, but I created all the online courses?

TOM TOBIN: Ah, that’s the other part of this conversation that we can’t fit into an hour. And that’s “who owns what?”

I’ll give you a little teaser for this. If you work for a company, everything you create for that company on company time and using company resources belongs to the company. They own it. They have the copyright to your work. That’s called work for hire.

In higher education, however, there is a longstanding tradition of allowing faculty members to own the copyright for the content and materials that they create. It is a tradition. It is not part of the law. And that’s why many colleges and universities have policies and have contractual agreements that enshrine that into the policy and contract for the institution, where they say who owns what.

Now if you’re creating content on your own time with your own equipment, you definitely own that. But this is a point where we’re going beyond we don’t have to ask the lawyer. I would encourage you to contact your legal counsel at your institution and get more clarity about the who owns what. And that’s another half an hour conversation that maybe we’ll have as part of this series down the road.

I notice you are using different types of attributions for the images used in your slides. Do you recommend a guide for attribution, or are there specific rules to be aware of?

TOM TOBIN: In terms of attribution, as a good scholar, I’m going to put an attribution for just about everything I make a copy of. And that’s more an ethical thing than a legal thing. Under fair use you don’t have to put an attribution for things that you make copies of. But we’re trying to show our students the right way to cite their sources, so it’s incumbent on us to do good attributions.

I don’t have a particular style for attributions. Nine times out of 10 I’m just going to give a copyright citation that says copyright, the year, the person who owns it. And if I’m using that content, making that copy under a license, I’ll tell what the terms of the license are.

So for example with those Star Wars images, those are from starwarsscreencaps.com, and I’m using tiny little bits of the entire thing. So I’m making a fair use argument for making those copies at all. So if you want, you can use MLA, APA, Chicago style, and you giving a citation in that format shows your students the right way to do it and covers your butt too, just ethically speaking.

Note: Dr. Tom Tobin is not a lawyer and this post does not constitute legal advice.

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