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3 More Notes About Copyright

I’ve talked a bit about copyright issues in education in the past, and wanted to give a few quick notes on what I’ve been looking at lately for using copyrighted materials in class (especially as it relates to posting them online).

1. Copyright Clearinghouses

The good news: Copyright Clearinghouses are a purely legal way to secure permission to use material by paying for their use.

The bad news: (1) It’s typically expensive. For instance, while the per-page cost of all the written materials varied from $.05 to $.15 (the latter an Isaac Asimov book), to post the pages to Blackboard you would pay by the number to students enrolled as well. So, to post 20 pages of the Asimov book to 36 online students, you’d have to pay $108 for that usage . These charges would add up quickly. (2) Clearinghouses give permissions based on not only the work, but the specific version on the work, identified in their databases by their ISBN number. If you don’t have that number handy, finding specific titles can be a bear. (3) The typical clearinghouse’s database isn’t exactly what you’d call comprehensive. It’s limited to those publishers they represent. I wasted a lot of time trying to find specific works to pay for permissions, even with an ISBN number.

That being said, it’s an option.

2. Permission Letters

The easiest way to get permission to post something online is to ask politely for it. It used to be very easy to do this with a high success rate: Find out who publishes the work, go to their website, find out who you should contact for copyright issues (every publisher has it on their site somewhere), then send a quick email. The email should explain what you’re using it for, that it will be only for your students (posted to Blackboard or other secure area), and how long you plan to have it posted (permissions are generally given on a per-semester basis). Two years ago, members at ISU who did this had about a 95% success rate, and it usually took them an average of ~10 minutes of their time. But something’s changed the last few years. Securing permission this way has become less and less reliable, and while I can take several educated guesses as to why this is the case, I’ll leave it to your imagination. I should note that I still recommend people pursue this path for legally obtaining copyright—it has no downside other than the little bit of time it takes to do it.

I went through the process of trying to secure permission to post a Nova (PBS) episode to a Blackboard class for either one semester, or for an extended period of time (so I theoretically wouldn’t have to re-secure permission every time I wanted to post the video). Research quickly led me to to answer a lot of questions. The first thing that occurred to me is that they seem very cool and understanding about the use of their material for education. I mean: It’s Nova/PBS… we really like them in education. The second is that they still have to lay down their copyright permissions in such a way that one shouldn’t approach the issue without aspirin handy, especially if you’re a higher education instructor. (They have looser restrictions for K – 12 education.)

They tell you to call (800-344-3337) for any copyright issues, so I did. After a recorded menu, I pressed “0” for an operator.  Which seemed to cause the system to hang up on me. Calling back, I talked to a woman who explained I’d have to talk to the representative for Illinois. After finding my long-distance code, I eventually talked to a very pleasant Jim Garner. He explained to me that if you want to stream a Nova episode (assuming it was in their library), you’d have to pay a fee for its use institution-wide. The way it works: You pay for one episode (based on institution size, a ballpark figure of $400 for ISU), they send the video file, which is then put on a university server for general use for 3 years. There is no system in place for a one instructor, one use situation.

And this is the way it trends nowadays. The Nova example is but one avenue I went down to find a practical way to secure reasonable copyright permission. ~$400 for one professor to show one episode of Nova is not “reasonable” (though to be fair, is a not-outrageous price for institution-wide use). I failed a lot at “reasonable.”

Still, asking permission is my go to recommendation.

3. Existing Video

A quasi-legal (Legal-ish? Not necessarily illegal?) way to give access to material to students is to find existing, non-official, copyright-breaking versions of the video on public sites like YouTube and tell your students to watch it there. Alternately, and far more legally, if the material is available officially from the publisher for free (like last night’s episode of The Daily Show on the Comedy Central site), tell them to watch it there. There’s lots of material out there on the net, just waiting to be plucked for free.

However, the big downside is you’re at the mercy of who’s posted the material. Copyright infringing material is taken off YouTube (not picking on them—there are plenty of such sites) in large numbers every day, which is but one reason why I never recommend this option to instructors. You’re safer for legally posted material, yet it also nearly always has a fixed shelf life (only available for a week, or a month, or other fixed period of time) and they can change their policies at a moment’s notice.

Using existing video on the internet is usually what instructors do when they have no other choice.

In any case, thanks for reading.