Copyright and Your Online Learning Environment


© is the copyright symbol in a copyright notice

Image via Wikipedia

As the college’s copyright compliance officer, I get questions all the time about what is permissible to post in online environments for your students.  While each situation should be evaluated for its merits, there are some general things to think about when it comes to U.S. copyright law and online learning environments.

Why should you care?  For one, it is the law and the college is obligated to follow the law.  Secondly, you as an individual faculty member (not just the college) can be held liable for copyright violations. 

Here are some general thoughts. 

The same laws that apply to face-to-face classrooms are still applicable in an online environment.  Educators are familiar with the fair use principle, which allows for certain uses of copyrighted materials for educational purposes.  But fair use doesn’t mean that all educational use of copyrighted materials are allowable.  There are four factors of fair use that are to be considered together in determining whether a proposed use could be considered fair use.   

The permissable use of a copyrighted work is reviewed against these four factors before considering anything else.  There is not a bright line, or one correct answer.  We look to case law to determine if the use we propose has been held up in federal court when challenged.  Thankfully, what most people want to do is pretty standard and we can have confidence in our decision whether to allow or disallow a use.

So what happens when you are dealing with online learning environments?  Here’s a classic example:  You want your students to view an educational video in your online class.  If it were a face-to-face class, you would be able to show that video assuming it was legally acquired.  But in an online class, can you post a video for students to view?  The answer is yes.  The TEACH Act provides another layer to copyright law, in recognition that the times have changed.  First, an institution needs to meet certain criteria to be TEACH Act compliant, which Centralia College is.  Then online use of educational materials is permitted given that a) the fair use principles have still been applied, and b) other requirements and limitations of TEACH Act law are met for the proposed use.  For example, we can show an educational video online if its access is limited only to students currently enrolled and is available only for a short period of time.  Things get much hairier if we are talking about creative works, like feature films.

Bottom line?  If you’re not sure whether your use falls within fair use or if the TEACH Act would allow use in the online environment, ask us.  TEACH Act does specifically prohibit digital transmission of textbooks and other materials that would otherwise be purchased by individual students.  Other than that, we have much more flexibility than we used to.

PS.  Support the movement for open education, both as a contributor of quality content and a user!  Something with a Creative Commons license is totally NOT a copyright headache.


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