Solutions for Dealing with Copyrighted Materials in an Open Access Course

copyright posterMost regular ProfHacker readers know that I’m an Open CourseWare evangelist. However, I will be the first to admit that fully embracing an Open CourseWare philosophy isn’t always an easy thing to do. Challenges can include institutional opposition (from fellow faculty or administration), technical issues (where to host, choosing a platform, etc.), and student confusion (most students have been trained to use the university’s chosen LMS, and expecting them to use another platform or follow a different model can sometimes be problematic).

For me, however, one of the most significant challenges that has cropped up in recent years is how one goes about dealing with the inevitable copywritten materials used in class. What do we do with the articles, videos, book chapters, books, and audio that are someone else’s intellectual property? The problem (at least for me) is that, in many cases, leaving that stuff out means that the open course will be incomplete. I’m personally of the opinion that we should do our best to make an open course as complete as possible (for me, a skeleton syllabus online hasn’t cut it for a long time). On the other hand, putting copywritten materials up on the web for all to access (the point of Open CourseWare) has significant legal consequences. In the spirit of this conundrum, here are some suggested solutions for dealing with copyrighted materials in an open access course.

A couple of caveats before we start. First, copyright law is bordering on the maddenly complex (and I am hardly an expert). I in no way want to imply that these suggestions aren’t without other (unforeseen and unmentioned) legal issues. The same goes for fair use—which is part of copyright law, but definitely should be mentioned as it is often used by scholars as a “free pass” for issues of copyrighted materials in the academy. In support of this complexity, I would point to the recent incident in which the Association for Information and Media Equipment (an educational media trade group) threatened to sue UCLA, arguing that the streaming video which was behind the university’s authentication still infringed on copyright. Despite the fact that UCLA asserted that they weren’t in the wrong, they suspended the practice and are seeking to settle the matter out of court. The point is that copyright issues (regardless of whether they are in or out of the academy) are the furthest thing imaginable from cut and dried. With these caveats out of the way, let’s get with the solutions!

Use University Authentication System

All universities have some sort of method of authenticating users. We’re talking about the university login and password system that you need to use to access all manner of institutional services and sites. What if you could put the copyrighted materials (PDF article, video, etc) behind that authentication so that when students go to access them through your open course site (that you’ve created using a platform such as WordPress or Drupal), they are prompted to put in their university login and password? This way, the materials are listed on your open course site, but only your students can access it. Sound like a good option? It is, but it isn’t without its issues (no surprise there). While using your university’s authentication system will prevent non-university people from accessing the copyrighted material, it also means that anyone with a university login and password will be able to access it. This could have some legal implications (especially for universities with large numbers of students, faculty, and staff). There are technical issues as well. First off, its quite possible that you simply can’t hook into your university’s authentication system (either because of university policy or because the authentication system’s architecture simply isn’t designed in such as way that it can be accessed). If you can hook into it (through an API, for example), you are probably going to have to do a lot of hacking to get it work perfectly. You’ll probably also have a fair degree of technical knowledge to get things to work (or draft someone who does). Where should you start investigating whether this solution is for you? The first step should probably be getting in contact with your central university IT people. If they don’t deal with the authentication system, they’ll certainly know who does. At Michigan State University (and this will of course vary from institution to institution), the authentication system (which thankfully has an API) is controlled by Academic Technology Services.

Use Class Level Password

Most platforms that you might use to deploy your open course site (for me, this is WordPress) will have the ability to implement password protection of some sort. That way, you could put links to all of your copyrighted materials on a password protected section of the course site, and only give the password to the students in your class. This gives you added benefit of limiting access to just those students in your class (as opposed to the firehose-like access you get by hooking into your university’s authentication system as described above). The downside to this (and it isn’t all that much of a downside) is that it requires students to keep track of yet another login and password.

A variation of this option is to use your university’s LMS to host open course site (just remember, it isn’t open access if it isn’t actually accessible to the public). The benefit of doing this is that your official university LMS most likely has granular level control over access (as well as automatically hooking into your university’s authentication system). I personally don’t advocate this as I’m not a fan of closed source, centrally administered LMS systems in general (and my university’s LMS in particular). However, if you think this is the best option for you, go for it.

Use Only Open Access Materials

In the grand scheme of things, using only open access materials is probably the best solution to this problem. By doing this, you completely sidestep the issue of using copyrighted materials. You won’t ever have to worry about issues of access (your students vs. the public) because the material is freely available to anyone. Personally, I try to use as much open access material as possible. However, the reality of this option is that there are always things that you want to include (or that you absolutely need to include) that are copyrighted. The end result is that you might still have to implement one of the other solutions discussed herein.

Link Through Your Library

A variation on the “use your university authentication system” option is to directly link to the article or book your library’s e-resources system. This way you can provide your students access to the copyrighted material using the established licensing agreement that your university has with the publisher. The drawback to this solution is that while all university libraries provide some level of official electronic access to books and journals, they don’t always provide the same sort of access for video (streaming or downloadable). So, if your class uses a lot of video, you are right back in the same boat as before.

Put Copyrighted Materials Up and Damn The Consequences

While there are legitimate instances where you might want to take this route (you firmly believe that your use falls under a DMCA exemption or fair use), this is clearly not the wisest solution of the bunch (from a practical standpoint, at the very least). However, if you have no problem coping with DMCA takedown notices, nasty cease and desist letters from publishers, or angry emails from administration, go for it.

Now its your turn. Do you use copyrighted materials in your open access course? If so, what is your solution?

[Image by Flickr user biwook / Creative Commons licensed]

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