Saturday, February 28, 2009

The TEACH Act: Copyright in the Classroom, part 3

You thought copyright was confusing before, but no, this is where it gets tricky – copyright law in online education. When you post something copyrighted on a web page or send it across the internet, you are in a sense publishing that material, and that’s quite different than showing a slide for a few minutes in a classroom or handing around a photocopied article to a few students. That’s giving everyone, everywhere the ability to take or use someone else’s work without compensation.

In order to address the unique aspects of online education and copyright law, Congress passed the TEACH Act in 2002. The Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act made it legal for teachers employed by accredited schools to use copyrighted materials in online education in pretty much the same ways they could be used in face-to-face classroom settings. Sounds great, eh? Oh, but there’s a catch – there are a set of conditions that must be met for the TEACH Act to apply:

    An institution must have an established copyright policy and educational information on copyright law available.

    The copyrighted material must be used in a lesson or instructional activity – supplemental material used for additional information or extra reading is not allowed.

    Access must be limited only to enrolled students, and only for the duration of a class or course.

    Technological controls must be in place to prevent students from downloading or copying material or transmitting it on to someone else.

    Commercial materials created explicitly for distance education cannot be used. Required textbooks and workbooks cannot be posted instead of purchased. Illegally acquired material cannot be used.

    All material available to students must come with a notice about copyright law.

Those conditions are tough to meet, especially the ones about controlling downloads and access. Luckily, all is not lost if you cannot do it.

Links - Instead of giving your students copies of copyrighted material, give them the links to go the original sources online. It’s more efficient anyway. All you have to do is check frequently to make sure the links are still good.

Permissions - Copyright holders will often grant permission to use their work for a fee or for educational purposes. Sometimes an email is all it takes, but more often it’s a lengthy process.

Fair use - The fair use exemption to copyright law can still be used in online education, but you need to be very careful. As a practical matter, your treatment of someone else’s intellectual property in the classroom is just between you and your conscience. It might make it hard to insist that your students do not plagiarize when you make someone else work free, and all but impossible to show them that science is all about honest and ethical inquiry. But the chances of being caught or prosecuted for copyright infringement are vanishingly small.

With distance education, though, it’s a different story. Once you put something online it’s there for anyone with a search engine and a professional or financial stake in protecting their rights to find. So I suggest you post as little copyrighted material as possible (use links instead), and show good faith by always crediting the author when you do. Once a class is over, take the material down.

For more detailed information on the TEACH Act and distance education, visit these sites -

TEACH Act Toolkit
Stanford Library's Fair Use website

Friday, February 20, 2009

Well, it seems fair to me: Copyright in the Classroom, part 2

Anyone who teaches biology needs to use copyrighted material. You can’t convey the scope of life on Earth or the complexity of biological processes or the secret inner life of cells without using pictures, videos, and diagrams. Only a small amount of the good stuff is in the public domain, so there’s really no way to avoid copyright issues. Here are some options --

Creative Commons – Look for material with a Creative Commons license. Many authors are willing to share their work with some strings attached. Various CC licenses give the public permission to copy, distribute, and display material as long as the copyright holder is credited or the work is not altered or used for profit. Frequently the graphics and photos on Wikipedia and flickr and articles in online science journals have attribution/non-commercial licenses – just follow the simple rules and they are free for the using.

Fair Use – U.S. copyright law allows educators to use copyrighted materials legally under the principle of fair use. A set of 4 kind of squishy conditions are weighed to determine if a use is fair. Here they are, as described by the Association of Research Libraries (I can copy their discussion here, because it’s published under a Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial 2.5 License):

This “fair use” provision of copyright law doesn’t provide hard and fast rules to tell you whether a use qualifies as fair. Instead, the unique facts regarding a use lead you to a reasoned conclusion. Your evaluation should weigh four factors:

1. Purpose and character: If your use is for teaching at a nonprofit educational institution, this is a factor favoring fair use. The scale tips further in favor of fair use if access is restricted to your students.

2. Nature of copyrighted work: Is the work fact-based, published, or out-of-print? These factors weigh in favor of fair use.

3. Amount used: Using a small portion of a whole work would weigh toward fairness. But sometimes it may be fair to use an entire work (such as an image) if it is needed for your instructional purpose.

4. Market effect: A use is more likely to be fair if it does not harm the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. But if it does, this could weigh more heavily against fair use than the other factors.

Consider each of these factors, but all of them do not have to be favorable to make your use a fair one. When the factors in the aggregate weigh toward fairness, your use is better justified. When the factors tip the scales in the other direction, your need to obtain permission from the copyright holder increases. Don’t worry that the answer isn’t crystal clear. Just decide whether the factors weigh enough toward fairness so that you are comfortable not seeking permission. Some suggest reliance on the “golden rule” — if you were the copyright holder, would you see the use as fair and not expect to be asked for permission?

Fair use allows teachers to use, reproduce, and distribute copyrighted material in the classroom. But in return, teachers are required to exercise restraint. You cannot copy all or most of a textbook or workbook so that students do not have to buy them. You can’t copy a nature program off the tv and show it every semester if it is available for sale or rent. You are not allowed to put together a thick packet of articles for your students to buy from you or the local copy shop. Be reasonable - the people who write textbooks and make films need to make a living.

Copyright Clearance – If you really need to use copyrighted material in a way that doesn’t fall under fair use, you can and must get permission. Most textbook publishers will sell clearances that allow making lots of copies for educational uses. You can seek permission yourself, or use a clearance services. Many scientists and other copyright holders will also grant permission for you to use a photo or illustration or other material if you ask nicely and want to use it in a way they find reasonable.

For more information on copyright and classroom teaching, check out Stanford University’s website on Copyright and Fair Use. It’s fabulous.

Next time, the TEACH Act and copyright law in distance education.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Copywhat? Copyright in the Classroom, part 1

Science and teaching are both collaborative ventures. Every scientific discovery is built on the work that came before it, and scientists freely, eagerly share their ideas with one another. Teaching is all about sharing knowledge as much as possible. I wonder if that’s why so many science teachers have so little regard for copyright law? And we don't, we really don’t. I know I’ve happily used copyrighted photos and diagrams in almost every lecture, shown bootleg nature videos a lot more than once, and photocopied plenty of articles for lab handouts. None of that ever gave me a second thought. Until now.

I’ve spent the past several months editing an online biology course put together by social authoring – different professors write each chapter and supply illustrations, homework and lab assignments. I was taken aback, no, I was stunned, well actually I was sent into sputtering fits and rants by how often people sent in copyrighted material. They weren’t trying to pull a fast one, they genuinely thought it was okay. Okay to copy definitions because they were just a sentence or two. Okay to use someone else’s chart if they wrote their own description of it. Okay to cut and paste data or directions since they’d been using them for years in their classes.

Once I calmed down a little, I realized that although I did know all of that was illegal, I was not all that up on the details of copyright law. Was what I did in the classroom legal? Or when I posted material on my class web page or emailed information to a student, how about then? I’ve been exploring the convoluted rules of copyright law and fair use and distance education, and am going to share it all with you. Whee! This is the first of a series of blogs on copyright in the classroom. If I confuse you or myself along the way, I hope you’ll speak up.

Let’s start with the basics:

CopyrightU.S. copyright law gives the author of a work the exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, and display all or part of that work for varying periods of time. Material published before 1923 is now in the public domain. Work created in 1978 or later is copyrighted for lifetime of the author plus 70 years. The stuff produced between 1923 and 1978 is in a bit of a gray area. The best bet is to assume anything younger than 1923 is copyrighted unless it specifically says otherwise.

It’s important to note that copyright law protects the expression of ideas, like articles, drawings, and videos, but it doesn’t apply to the ideas themselves. It’s a violation of law to copy a genome map produced by a biotech firm, but it is perfectly legal to describe the genome in your own words.

Public domain – Material in the public domain is a form of public property and it can be copied and reproduced at will, though it is still considered unethical not to attribute the work to the original author. Public domain works include material whose copyright has expired or whose authors have waived some or all of their rights. It’s important to realize putting material out for public view is not the same as putting it in the public domain. Writings and graphics on the internet fall under copyright laws as much as if they were written on paper. Again, it’s best to assume that anything you find online is copyrighted unless it clearly says otherwise.

One thing that often trips up science teachers is how the U.S. government works. Material produced by the federal government and its employees is in the public domain, and a good thing too because they put out some of the best science. But government scientists often collaborate with people who work in the private sector, and they frequently retain the rights to their work even if they grant the government permission to use it in a publication. Make sure you read the fine print.

So those are the basics of copyright and public domain. In later blogs, I’ll cover how you can and can’t use copyrighted material in face-to-face and distance education, the doctrine of fair use, and the TEACH Act.