Classroom Technology

Bill Would Ease Copyright Limits For E-Learning

By Andrew Trotter — October 30, 2002 4 min read
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Likely changes to U.S. copyright law this fall would give schools and higher education institutions new rights to use copyright materials over the Internet and in other technologies used for “distance learning.”

The provisions of the Technology Education and Copyright Harmonization Act, called TEACH, would amend the Copyright Act of 1976. The House tacked the measure on to the Justice Department reauthorization bill before passing that appropriations bill in September. The Senate, which passed TEACH as a separate bill in 2001, adopted the Justice Department bill along with the TEACH provisions on Oct. 3.

“It’s definitely a plus for education,” said Gary H. Becker, a national expert on copyright law. “It will make people more aware that there are traditional resources that can be used in online classes.”

The full impact of the changes may be years away, awaiting technical advances, added Mr. Becker, who is the manager of media production for the Seminole County schools in Florida. “The major breakthrough will occur when technology can produce reliably full-motion, full-quality audio and video to desktops,” he said.

But as soon as President Bush signs the bill, as he is expected to do, teachers offering online instruction—through such arrangements as “virtual schools” or online courses—would gain the ability to use copyright digital materials in ways that approach the “fair use” rights that educators enjoy in a regular classroom.

The new rights include:

  • Expanding the range of works that may be transmitted over electronic systems to nearly all types of materials—although only portions of some works could be transmitted. And works that are marketed primarily as instructional resources would be excluded. Current law excludes broad categories of copyright works.
  • Allowing the content to be transmitted to students at any location, rather than just to classrooms, as is legal under current law.
  • Allowing educators to store transmitted content and give students access to it, if only for short periods. Copying and storing content would be allowed where necessary for digital transmission systems.
  • Allowing the conversion to digital form of analog works, such as printed or videotaped material, but only in cases where the material is not already available in digital form, such as on DVD.

Those benefits, however, would come with multiple strings attached. For a start, the rights would be granted only to government bodies or nonprofit, accredited higher education institutions or schools—ruling out public-broadcasting stations and for-profit subsidiaries of nonprofit groups, all of which are potential developers of online instruction.

Also, the materials would have to be used in teacher-led or supervised instruction and be integral to the course; they could not serve as textbooks or as general resources that students would use independently or repeatedly. Those are serious constraints given the flexible instructional approaches used in many online courses.

And schools and universities would have to take steps to limit access to the copyright materials to students in the course in which those materials were used “to the extent technologically feasible.”

The institutions would also have to “institute policies regarding copyright,” provide informational materials about copyright law to students and teachers, and give notice to students that materials used in the course may be subject to copyright protection.

Burdensome Obligations

Allan Adler, the vice president of legal and government affairs for the Association of American Publishers—one of the groups involved in the negotiations that shaped the bill—said the obligations for educational institutions to uphold copyright protections, especially using technological means to prevent retransmission to other users, were crucial to the publishers’ assent.

Publishers accept that today’s safeguards may not be foolproof, but that “when a certain technology safeguard becomes effective,” educational institutions will have to adopt it, he said.

Paul Nichols, an instructional specialist with the Virginia education department, welcomed the bill but said the measure’s requirement that digital materials not be retained for an extended period “puts us in a little bit of a jam.”

Mr. Nichols, who is helping a consortium of 22 school districts develop courses that are delivered by video teleconferencing, said, “We’re creating ‘learning objects’ to go along with specific standards of learning that can be archived, but after a certain length of time we’ve got to update our developed materials [to comply with the legislation].” Mandatory culling of copyrighted materials would be an arduous task, he said.

But experts noted that, because of the legislation enactment, publishers might offer educators more flexibility in purchasing licenses to use their materials online.

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