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Copyright Crash Course

A quick guide to everything you have ever wanted to know about Copyright

Access to Online Course Materials

The barriers to providing access to online course materials in ways that easily enable compliance with copyright law are significant and complex. There are operational impediments: institutions that attempt to implement digital distribution systems will probably need to allocate more technological resources or more human resources, but probably both, to solving the problems they will encounter. Further, legal compliance in this context will likely require additional royalty payments to copyright owners for the use of their materials. Even more basically, simple lack of awareness creates a barrier to success: most campus administrators are not familiar with the scope of the compliance problem or its seriousness. Currently, a few individuals within the libraries are likely to fully understand the problems, but unfortunately libraries cannot address them acting alone. Finally, in addition to legal, technological, human resource, financial and awareness hurdles, evolving business models in the publishing community raise the possibility that systems devised today might be obsolete tomorrow. This article briefly discusses all of these aspects of the digital distribution system.

Policy and Procedure Issues

Although there is disagreement about the extent to which one may rely on fair use to justify providing course materials without permission, suffice it to say that the idea that all uses are fair is unsupportable. Thus, if some uses require permission, there exists the need for a copyright-compliant system as a starting point for the rest of the discussion. Assuming we acknowledge the need to have a system in place that enables us to pay permission fees as needed, this article examines the institutional barriers to implementing such a system.

An ideal system would allow faculty members to identify required and recommended readings and post them themselves or delegate posting; those readings would be “cleared” if necessary (permission to duplicate and distribute would be obtained when needed, but not otherwise); students would access the materials through their course management systems or as directed by their professors; and the whole process would be repeated each semester.

Many aspects of the university environment and the evolving publishing industry make achieving the goal of a compliant system difficult, if not impossible. Following is an outline describing five broad problems that significantly impede implementation.

  • Lack of awareness that a problem exists among campus administrators who can not be expected to allocate resources to solve a problem they do not know about.
  • The decentralized nature of curricular decision-making.
    • Faculty are reluctant to undertake the evaluative tasks involved in assessing whether a work is licensed already, is available for license through the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), whether its use may be fair, or whether permission is required. They also are not inclined to obtain and pay for permission on behalf of their students.
    • Educating those who use licensed materials about the best ways (e.g. linking to materials in a database) to make those materials available is a monumental task.
  • Centralizing these tasks at any level or at multiple levels may require hiring temporary staff at the beginning of each semester to quickly and efficiently assess whether materials are licensed already, available for license through CCC, whether their use may be fair, or whether permission is required.
    • ‚ÄčWe need technological resources to create a bridge between those who acquire permission and the library databases of licensed materials.
    • We must hire adequate numbers of staff to carry out these tasks -- individuals who are experienced, are good record-keepers, have knowledge of the relevant software tools, and can effectively run a centralized service that is able to avoid start-of-semester bottlenecks.
    • We must allocate adequate financial resources to pay permission fees or charge the fees to students.
    • These same processes are needed for many other campus projects involving digitization and distribution so systems devised to address digital distribution in this context (course materials) need to be available for other uses as well, such as digital repositories.
  • There are some inherent inefficiencies in the fair use analysis which must be addressed if a scalable system is to be developed. 
  • Evolving business models in the publishing community may render complicated clearance processes obsolete in the near future.

Today only a fraction of the materials used each semester passes through any kind of gatekeeper, such as a library reserve system or course pack operation, because all faculty members have the capacity to post their own readings within their course management systems. The magnitude of the problem should be clear. Addressing the problem of copyright compliance involves changing an entire culture, not just a few individuals’ activities. 

Thus, establishing campus copyright offices centrally, or at college or departmental levels could be especially helpful because of the nature of the tasks required to implement a compliant system. One or more centralized offices might be further justified because of the nature and volume of copyright questions arising on campuses today. Copyright compliance is part of many projects underway at our campuses. For example, institutions are filling digital repositories with materials whose duplication and distribution may require permission, so the same processes we identify and recommendations we might make for online course materials will have some application to other projects on campus.

Most importantly, we must recognize that copyright compliance is not a library problem. It is a university problem. And it needs a university solution.