COVID, Copyright, and Courses
Most copyright issues are not very different during COVID-19 than they were previously, in person and online. However, many instructors are still encountering issues that are new to them, due to increasing use of online teaching and learning resources, and geographic dispersal of students.
(This document is evolving and subject to change. Last updated July 30, 2020.)
Let's cut to the chase right away:
Um, no. Except maybe every once in a while?
Making copies for students always presents some copyright issues. Any time you upload a file to your course site, you are making copies for students. It is often legal to share portions of works with students, in the non-profit educational context - this may be allowed as a fair use, but fair use doesn't operate by broad rules, it alway requires some thought about the specific item, and the specific context of your use. At times (especially in unusual circumstances, or with works that aren't otherwise commercially available) fair use may extend to lengthier copies.
If you're not already familiar with the basic four factors of fair use, you should probably start there. We also have some additional information about contextual fair use issues specific to teaching and learning.
In the spring of 2020, when many instructors were rapidly shifting their courses online, a group of copyright experts in higher education (including the UMN Libraries Copyright Program Librarian, Nancy Sims) put out a public statement that suggested fair use might be more expansive and/or flexible under the time pressures and public health pressures of that pressing moment. This was (and remains) an advocacy position with which some could disagree, but it attracted significant endorsement from library folks, administrators, and legal scholars.
As the pandemic has continued in the United States, the time pressures of the spring have eased, but the public health pressures to minimize contact between individuals have not. There is no updated version of the spring public statement, but many of the authors of that statement (including Sims) think that, under the principles articulated in that statement, it is reasonable to think that fair use may still be a bit more flexible than it is when there is no pandemic, but not as flexible as it might have been last spring. This is not an objective statement of what the law already is, it is an advocacy position that stakes out some prinicples in a space (public health exceptions) where copyright law is currently undeveloped. However, the idea that spring 2020's time pressure was particularly unusual also lines up with the practices of many educational content vendors; in the spring, many of them made some of their resources available online for free, but most have ended those programs, because there is now time to process normal payments for access.
University of Minnesota policy affirms that it is an instructors right and responsibility to make their own decisions about when they make copies for students. The Libraries can help you think through those decisions (contact firstname.lastname@example.org), and there are also extensive alternative options for providing course materials to your students, outlined below.
Linking to publicly available online content like news websites, existing online videos, etc is rarely a copyright issue. (It's better not to link to existing content that looks obviously infringing itself - Joe Schmoe's YouTube video of the entire "Black Panther" movie is probably not a good thing to link to. But Sara Someone's 2-minute video of herself and her best friend talking over a few of the pivotal scenes may be fair use, and is not something you should worry about linking to.)
Linking to subscription content through the Libraries is also a great option - a lot of our subscription content will have DOIs, PURLs, or other "permalink" options, all of which should work even for off-campus users. You can make links to those items yourself, or for assistance linking to any particular libraries subscription content, contact email@example.com
The Libraries can also set up links to subscription and public content for your course - but only if you contact us ahead of time! There's more information on how to do that through the Course Reserves service.
When you send us a list of readings, we can check for items we already subscribe to, and we can sometimes buy new electronic content for your students.
Items that the Libraries buy or link for you will automatically show up in Canvas as part of the Libraries resources for your course.
Of course, the Libraries don't always have ways we can buy or link to content. In that case, we'll come back to you to ask how you'd like to proceed. You can consider fair use copying at that point, or a subject specialist librarian may be able to suggest alternative content that is already online through library subscriptions, or publicly online content. We can also help you seek formal copyright permissions to provide copies to students - that may cost money, and there may be some issues with getting permissions on short timelines.
Showing an entire movie or film or musical work online may be a bit more of an issue than playing it in class - but there are often options for your students to access it independently online. While most instructors want to keep course costs low for students, standard commercial streaming options like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Disney+ are often the cheapest and easiest option. (For exclusive content, the commercial services may be the only option.)
The Libraries already have quite a bit of licensed streaming video content, which you are welcome to use in your online course. The Libraries also already have subscriptions to a significant set of streaming audio options for UMN users. We may be able to purchase streaming access for additional media, but it does take time to finalize a streaming license, and institutional streaming costs do often exceed our budget constraints.
Fair use may cover sharing media clips with students via Canvas/Kaltura or other streaming or download options. And where there are no other options, fair use may sometimes extend to playback of an entire work, but as outlined above, that will generally only be true for unusual outliers.
If it was legal to show slide images in class, it is likely legal to show them to students via live video conferencing or in recorded videos. This may be a surprise if you have heard that there is a big difference between class lecture slides and online conference slides - but the issue is usually less offline versus online, than a restricted versus an unrestricted audience. As long as your new course video is being shared through course websites limited to the same enrolled students, the legal issues are fairly similar.
Many instructors routinely post a copy of their slides as a file for students to access after in-person course meetings, which also likely doesn't present any new issues after online course meetings.
Here, the differences between online and in-person teaching can be a bit more complex. Playing audio or video off of physical media during an in-person class session is 100% legal at the University of Minnesota under a provision of copyright law called the "Classroom Use Exemption". However, that exemption doesn't cover playing the same media online. If you can limit audio and video use for your course to relatively brief clips, you may be able to include those in lecture recordings or live-casts under the copyright provision called fair use. For media use longer than brief clips, you may need to have students independently access the content outside of your lecture videos. Some further options are outlined above.
There may be some practical differences in outcomes depending on where you post new course videos - on the University's Kaltura platform it is easy to control access at the level of individual videos, and to connect to your course in Canvas. You also can post video to YouTube via your UMN Google account, and the same basic legal provisions apply even on YouTube. However, it is more likely that videos posted on YouTube may encounter some automated copyright enforcement, such as a takedown notice, or disabling of included audio or video content. These automated enforcement tools are often -incorrect- when they flag audio, video, or images included in instructional videos - if you encounter something like this that you believe to be in error, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for assistance.
The University of Minnesota's Copyright Ownership Policy affirms that faculty members and faculty-like employees own the copyright in their academic works, including instructional content. Some units and departments have different policies around ownership of course video at the unit level, but you would likely already be aware of that if it is applicable. Some units may also have some shared expectations of shared -access- to course video for continuity of educational experiences, without those expectations affecting the ownership of the materials.
University policies also affirm that students own the copyright in their own coursework. Instructors can require them to submit it in particular formats, but the students continue to own their works unless a separate agreement is signed by the student.
More Questions? Need help?
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Unless otherwise noted, all content on the Copyright Information section of this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
This web site presents information about copyright law. The University Libraries make every effort to assure the accuracy of this information but do not offer it as counsel or legal advice. Consult an attorney for advice concerning your specific situation.