Academic Libraries Add Netflix Subscriptions

A Netflix subscription seems like a no-brainer for an academic library with a limited budget to meet campus demand for audiovisual materials. But as more librarians sign up for its popular mail and streaming-video services, Netflix says library distribution of rented DVD’s or streaming video violates its terms of use.

According to Steve Swasey, Netflix’ vice president of corporate communications, Netflix does not offer institutional subscriptions. All of its media are meant only for personal consumption. Loaning DVD’s out for faculty members to project onscreen in class or allowing students to watch streaming video from a library Netflix account is something the company “frowns upon,” Mr. Swasey said.

The company knows that its service is being used by librarians, but so far it has not taken legal action to stop them. “We just don’t want to be pursuing libraries,” Mr. Swasey said. ”We appreciate libraries and we value them, but we expect that they follow the terms of agreement.”

A number of college and university libraries have active Netflix programs available to faculty and staff members. According to their libraries’ Web sites, the University of Washington, Willamette University, and Pacific Lutheran University are among the institutions with Netflix programs in place.

Rebecca Fitzgerald, acquisitions librarian and office manager at the Scheele Memorial Library at Concordia College, described her college’s Netflix plan for students in a September 9 guest post on the Tame the Web blog. Ms. Fitzgerald said Netflix has saved her campus approximately $3,000 on film purchases. “I hope many libraries, who are facing hard economic times, consider Netflix as a valuable option,” she wrote. “It continues to be cost-effective and easily accessible for the students.”

Ms. Fitzgerald said there have been no legal repercussions from her library’s Netflix program. “No one from Netflix has questioned this,” she wrote in response to comments on the blog concerning the program’s legality. She did not respond to The Chronicle‘s requests for an interview.

Ciara Healy, who now works as an outreach-services librarian at the Netflix-less University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, published a report in the Winter 2010 issue of Library Trends on a Netflix program for faculty members she set up while a librarian at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, N.C. Ms. Healy lauded Netflix as a way to make up for gaps in smaller libraries’ collections.

At Wake Technical, Ms. Healy said, she set down strict guidelines for access to Netflix material. DVD loans were restricted to faculty members who planned to use the material in the classroom, not for at-home entertainment. She allowed students to access streaming video from the Netflix Web site, but only under supervision on a computer in the college library. “I had a very tight grip on how those items were used,” she said.

Ms. Healy said she acted according to federal copyright law, which allows faculty members to share legally obtained material in face-to-face instruction. She said she was never notified by Netflix that she was violating its terms of use, although she opened up the account under the college’s name. “They certainly know that universities are using their service,” she said. “They have their licensure for a variety of legal reasons. I don’t think that they mean it as a strict prohibition against using their materials for face-to-face teaching.”

Copyright lawyer and librarian Kevin Smith, a scholarly communications officer at Duke University, said academic libraries are taking a risk with these programs. Although copyright law allows faculty members to use the material in the classroom, he said, they may be opening themselves up to legal action from the company.

“My personal opinion is that the risk of a contract problem makes it not worthwhile for us to have a program to lend discs that we borrow from Netflix,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s not a copyright issue. It’s an issue of the contract between the user and Netflix.”

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