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Copyright questions and online learning

In a futile attempt to retain what little sanity I have left, I've not written much about copyright issues for awhile. Yet because of our district's growing use of  teachers using Moodle, creating GoogleSite resources,uploading to YouTube, and other self-created online resources, I need to figure out some reasonable responses to some old questions - reinterpreted for these environments.

First, let me very clear about some of my personal copyright biases. (See my workshop on copyright and my article from SLJ for more detailed information.) I believe: 

  • In making copyright decisions, we should always err on the side of the information consumer, not the producer. We need to pay attention to the experts who are consumer-centric, not just the scare-mongers.
  • Educators (especially librarians) should be copyright counselors, not copyright cops. Our primary role should be helping people make good personal judgements about the use of others' intellectual property.
  • Many decisions about copyright are educated guesses, not facts. Case law does not keep up and is sometimes contradictory. But educated is the operative word in the first sentence.
  • Educators need to be much more aware of their special rights under copyright law. The law allows teachers much greater latitude in the educational use of copyrighted materials than the private individual - but not carte blanche.
  • Educators should be able to articulate why they choose to do what they do based on knowledge of law and fair use guidelines.
  • While there are those who would disagree, I do believe intellectual property creators should have control over how their work is used, have the right to charge for it, and have the right to deter unauthorized copying. An increasing number of people make their living by being creative for us to ignore theft and misuse.

So here are a few questions I've heard lately... 

  1. Is permission to link to another web resource needed? No. (See Stanford Copyright & Fair Use Guide.) Nor does one need permission to add a graphic or other media via a web link (framing). Adding a graphic in GoogleDocs via Insert Image by URL or using a widget to add a YouTube video would be examples of this. (See example above.)
  2. Can I make a copy of a document and put in my CMS? Probably, especially if your CMS is limited in who can have access. You be safer if you supplied a link to the original. Some sources allow single copies to be made and this would prevent violating that agreement.
  3. Can teachers use streaming Netflix in the classroom? Oh, boy, opinions are all over the place on this one. But in keeping with my first belief above, I would have no ethical problems showing a streamed Netflix movie to a classroom of students. My understanding has always been that the source of a video shown in class does not determine whether its use is fair (I could rent a movie from BlockBuster or buy it at Target and show it to my class, despite the warnings - educational use trumps those standard warnings.) I suppose Netflix could suspend your personal account if it felt you were violating terms of agreement.
  4. Will the district get in trouble for posting lips dub video on YouTube? Probably not. Few music copyright holders seem to object to this use of their music - some feeling it is good promotion for their commercial work. It could be argued fair use if it meets some educational goal. It doubt such a use would have an impact on the market for the work. (I'm not going to buy "Call Me Maybe"  now that I can watch Mrs. Jones 3rd graders lip syncing it on YouTube? Yeah, right.) Worst that could happen is that the music owner would add an advertisement or ask that it be removed. Personally, I'd feel more comfortable with a mix of parts of songs rather than a single entire work, but that's me. (See EFF's Guide to YouTube Removals.)

Please remember that I am not a lawyer - although I sometimes play one on the Internet. But I am an educator and one thing I always think about is the example I set. Making copyright decisions in the open, with a clear conscience, might be the best guide of all.

Oh, I've recently subscribe to Renee Hobbs and Nancy Simms copyright blogs. You should too.



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Reader Comments (5)

Doug, great points about copyright and fair use and how they impact (or are impacted by) online learning environments. I particularly like this one:

Educators (especially librarians) should be copyright counselors, not copyright cops...

In your opinion, does the same hold true when educators create their own digital curriculum materials that are distributed as an ebook, such as when using iBooks Author to create a digital textbook? How much content material can a teacher paste from other content sources under fair use (with attribution)? Or does this only apply to media that is embedded into the book as you described?

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Lustig

Hi Doug,

I've worked closely with Renee over the years on these very issues, and I greatly appreciate you adding sanity to the mix of copyright confusion. Why? Because there are far too many self-appointed "experts" and "police" posting signs and web sites that simply reinforce restrictive mythologies from the past (eg., the 30-second "rule"). Thanks also for the link to Nancy Simms blog -- always great to have a new resource.

Just an FYI: the law has recently changed and K-12 educators can now legally rip DVDs. Obviously, how much of the DVD used is still subject to the fair use critical reasoning process, but overall it's an exciting development, and I hope you'll spread the word!

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSpiro Bolos

Hi John,

My sense is that the same fair use guidelines apply to creating e-books as other instructional materials from whatever media - text, viideo, audio.... Personally, I would be as generous as possible in the interpretation of fair use for education - and comfort levels will vary from person to person. Obviously, I would not cut and paste an entire book into my e-book and call it my own, but articles, chapters and other amounts that represent much less than the whole seem OK to me.


Hi Spiro,

Thanks for the comment. Renee is the best! I saw the info on DVD ripping on her blog too.

All the best,


January 22, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Blue skunk Blog is great blog. we have appreciated it i thanks for sharing.

March 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterImprimerie Montréal

Hi Doug,

Thanks so much for the post.

One of my concerns about teaching in Africa is access to resources. We have great difficulty in ordering books, DVD's etc., actually we order all our classroom supplies 10 months in advance! So as educators we rely on internet resources like YouTube to assist us in engaging students and driving their inquiry and understanding of topics covered. I appreciate your comment that educators need to be copyright counselors and not copyright cops. I am going to breathe a lot easier knowing that, copyright laws are not as menacing as they appear to be.


April 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterClaudelle Lewis

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