UCLA Drops Copyrighted Videos From Course Web Sites After Legal Threat

Still from video by Jeffrey R. Young

Patricia Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media at American U., says a trade group's claim of copyright infringement is "something that really sends chills down your spine as a teacher."
February 21, 2010

The University of California at Los Angeles has stopped posting copyrighted videos on course Web sites after complaints from an educational-media trade group, leaving other colleges that regularly post multimedia for their students worried about repercussions.

The Association for Information and Media Equipment contacted the university in the fall, alleging that UCLA had violated copyright laws by letting instructors use the videos, which were accessible only to students then enrolled in specific courses and included works such as Shakespeare productions, foreign-language films, and documentaries. The university temporarily stopped using online videos beginning this semester and is negotiating with the trade group.

Current copyright law allows "fair use" exceptions for teaching and research, and one specific exception in copyright law lets instructors use audiovisual material in face-to-face teaching. The university argues that posting the material on password-protected sites falls under these exceptions, and that being able to use technology such as online videos is "a critical component of our instructional mission here and at a lot of other universities," according to a spokesman, Phil Hampton.

But Allen Dohra, president of the trade group, said that posting those videos was not protected, and that it hurt the people who produce them. Mr. Dohra said his organization also knew of three other institutions it needed to look into, although he declined to give their names.

"Every time there is a format change, the film producer has to make large capital expenditures to bring his collection up to date," Mr. Dohra said. "The customers want our product—enough of them prove that by stealing it—but they seem to have a problem with the companies recovering those capital expenditures. That is exactly the case in the UCLA matter."

Some university lawyers feel that the use of the videos is also protected by the Teach Act, which allows limited use of copyrighted materials for online education. That's the view of Steven J. McDonald, general counsel to the Rhode Island School of Design. who said that although the act restricts how much of a video can be posted, institutions could argue that using the whole video is necessary for the course.

Mr. Dohra disputes the applicability of the Teach Act, in part because UCLA used some full-length films.

Steven L. Worona, director of policy and networking programs at Educause, said the higher-education-technology organization had already fielded calls from universities concerned by the UCLA case. He said institutions should wait to see what happens before they take any action.

Mr. Worona said that posting class materials online was fairly common in higher education, and that requiring institutions to pay more to post online could have broad implications.

"If it becomes a requirement nationwide for streaming media to be limited to face-to-face synchronous presentation, it will be more expensive for campuses, more expensive for students, and lose many of the benefits that digital networking offers to classroom instruction," he said.

No United Front

Patricia Aufderheide, director of American University's Center for Social Media, disagrees with what she says is the University of California at Los Angeles's decision to negotiate instead of fight, but she understands why the institution did that. Universities have not joined together to find a way to deal with similar claims from media companies, she said.

Ms. Aufderheide, a professor of film and media studies who uses film clips in all of her classes, worries about challenges to universities' ability to post videos.

"I think this is something that really sends chills down your spine as a teacher," she said.

Instructors at UCLA are finding alternatives to using copyrighted videos online, said Robin L. Garrell, a chemistry professor and chair of the Academic Senate there. Some tell students to use Netflix or Amazon for movies, and others have modified their curricula based on what material is easily available. The university has also extended hours for its media lab, where students can use DVD players and other equipment.

Ms. Garrell and Patricia O'Donnell, manager of the university's instructional-media collections and services, declined to give their opinions on the case. But Ms. O'Donnell did say that the discussion about posting videos has been beneficial.

"I think it's definitely on everyone's mind," Ms. O'Donnell said. "I think the challenge [by AIME] has just sort of brought it to the forefront."

Mr. Dohra said he felt that his group had been accused of bullying the university, and that a number of professors and librarians had been unfairly critical in online comments.

"The copyright laws were attacked as antiquated, and AIME was castigated for standing up for its members' rights," Mr. Dohra said. "I find it all strange, especially coming from those who should consider intellectual-property rights the most sacred of rights."