June 20th, 2013

Recent Copyright Cases: What You Need to Know


In the spring of 2008, Georgia State University officials were sued by three academic publishers claiming extensive copyright infringement in the posting of book excerpts to GSU’s e-reserves and learning management systems. Although the case went to trial in the summer of 2011, the judge took nearly a year to craft an almost 350-page opinion that painstakingly analyzed 75 alleged violations of fair use.

Cases like these arise all the time, challenging and further defining our understanding of copyright. However, most of the commonly known rulings have addressed face-to-face classes, while only the most recent have lent clarity—or complexity—to the issues surrounding copyright laws as they apply to the online classroom.

In the recent online seminar, How Recent Copyright Court Cases Affect Distance Education, Linda Enghagen, J.D., attorney and professor in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, looked at a number of recent cases, extracting the facts that distance education faculty and administrators need to know.

For example:

  • Many people believe that “fair use” protects only a one-time use of material, and that using the material term after term will violate fair use. Instead, Enghagen explained why “repeated use of the same work is permitted by copyright law.”
  • Fair use disallows reproduction of excerpts of books if the excerpted material constitutes the “heart of the work.” Enghagen explained that if the intent of the reproduction is to allow someone to avoid purchasing the entire work, the reproduction is not allowed. An example might be a professor reproducing a summary chapter so that students are not required to purchase the entire book for class.
  • Some professors require students to upload papers to Turnitin, a service that checks student work against a database of published and other students’ work to check for plagiarism. Enghagen explained why this is an allowable requirement, even though Turnitin operates on a for-profit basis and maintains an archive that will include the students’ work.
  • A professor might bring a personally owned copy of a book or video to campus and show it in a face-to-face class, but do the same copyright restrictions apply when streaming the content online? Enghagen explained the differences in the fair use of personal copies of printed works versus videos in an online setting.
  • What is a transformative work? Enghagen discussed how using source material to create a new work is protected under copyright law and how this may play out in the online classroom.

These are just a few of the topics Enghagen explored in How Recent Copyright Court Cases Affect Distance Education, a well-organized, easy-to-understand online seminar for a complex topic—copyright and compliance.

  • M. W. Popejoy, PhD

    Copyright is made even more complex by how original work is posted on the Internet. When I see interesting postings that my students maybe should read, can I copy it to my Blackboard for online or on ground classes? Well, some say no; some say yes. I am confused also by the fact that a great deal of Internet content has buttons all over it (just like this one!) to send it to LinkedIn, Facebook, skywriting by small aircraft,etc. So, it would seem that some author wants maximum distribution–right? So, what is the difference if I tap the button to forward it to LinkedIn or to my Blackboard learning space (as long as I send it in its entirety with all author attributions). I have even been the good citizen and tried to contact the source of Internet content only to get no answer in all but one instance where the answer was yes; use the material in class.

    I think the violations should be limited to putting one's own name on the work and selling it as original work. That is fraud and for that you should spend some time in small dark spaces. But, if someone posts work on the Internet and then puts on the buttons for twitter, tweet, LinkedIn, Facebook and whatever else; then gee doesn't that sound like public domain? You can go crazy trying to stay within the law and protect intellectual property. If my book is sold in a legal market transaction then what do I care who ends up with the book or who quotes from it; I have been paid. Do I want my name cited sure; but, I also want people to use the material I published since that is why I published the material in the first place.

    • There's a BIG difference between copying material and sharing a link to it. The social buttons you mention only share links; they do not re-present the material, except, often, for a snippet of it.

      There are no restrictions against sharing links. So link away. When you link to material, the owner retains control over it and often benefits from the visits to their site (whether because they use ads or whether they just want to know how many people are viewing their work, etc.).

      Of course, for the user, there are sometimes downsides to only linking. One is that the material could disappear suddenly. Another is that you might want to re-frame how the material is presented, say, for students’ sakes. But that’s where you get into copyright negotiation area.

      Certainly one important part of simplifying and improving the issues is for more writers/creators to use Creative Commons licenses, so they can clearly specify what they do and do not permit folks to so with their work, etc. See http://creativecommons.org/choose/. That’s what we do at Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

      Also, there are a number of folks working on “open access” textbooks for colleges. One impressive endeavor of this sort is Writing Commons, which also uses Creative Commons licensing. I think that more and more such resources will be developed.

      Paul T. Corrigan
      Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.