Educational Purposes

A fair amount of my time over the past two days has been devoted to making sure that one of the activities in one of my courses this semester is in fact legal. The course in question is my Honors seminar "Envisioning the Future of World Politics," also known as the sci-fi course; the activity in question is the series of films that I show during the semester as a way of enhancing and extending the discussion. That this became such a complicated issue still baffles me, but in an uncertain legal environment, I can certainly see in retrospect why this might have happened.

The problem, as I understand it, is two-fold: copyright law changed with the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act a few years ago, and second, the Motion Picture Association of America, like its allies the Recording Industry Association of America, is a very litigious organization that is prone to go after just about any activity that it perceives as a violation of the rights of the owners of the work in question (which usually means the movie studio or the record label, not the artists) to receive a royalty from a performance of the work. Put these together and you have a situation in which no one is quite clear about what they are permitted to do and what they are not permitted to do -- and one does not want to be sued by the MPAA, which has very deep pockets and retains very good lawyers. So anything that might potentially be problematic has to be reviewed at multiple levels, which is how we ended up with the bizarre situation of my having to get legal opinions about a facet of my class. I don't fault the university; in an environment like this they were simply trying to make sure that they were on the right side of the law. But there is something absurd about the fact that it was even a question whether my use of films was legally permissible.

See, existing copyright law has an exception for educational purposes, known as the "face-to-face teaching" exception. What this says -- and this is not a legal opinion, but is in the actual text of the law itself -- is that if a faculty-member is using a piece of copyrighted material in the course of their "face-to-face teaching" activities, then they do not have to pay royalties in order to display/perform/show that work. I can show Star Trek VI in an international relations class and use that to spark a discussion about great power politics and the decline of empires, and I don't have to pay for doing so. (I have done this before.) And I can show important and interesting sci-fi films to my sci-fi course, and discuss them in class, and not have to pay for the showing of them.

It's good to know that I'm doing a legal thing. But it seems to me that the law itself is somewhat ambiguous, since "face-to-face teaching" is kind of vague. I mean, whenever I meet with a student I am engaged in "face-to-face teaching." Whenever I am around students, I like many other faculty-members are on the lookout for "teaching moments" where an important point can be made inductively, by drawing on the current activities or conversation. So logically, doesn't it follow that whenever faculty are around students, teaching is taking place, and so copyright law should permit the use of materials without cost? I wonder if there's a way to "perform" a book chapter or an article, and hence get around the necessity to pay publishers a fee for the use of that material. In a way this would fulfill the educational mission of the university much better, since no one could possibly mistake the publishing of academic writing for a commercial action!

In any event: I am gratified to know that I am legally permitted to continue to use films in my teaching. The sci-fi course wouldn't be the same without them.

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