New copyright ruling affects educators

K-12 was unable to prove that high-quality clips are essential to accomplish learning goals.
K-12 was unable to prove that clips are essential to accomplish learning goals. Copyright: opensourceway

A new ruling from the U.S. Copyright Office will affect how higher-education students and teachers can use digital material in the classroom, thanks to the efforts a university professor who says that increasing students’ digital literacy is a responsibility educators can’t afford to brush off.

The change is part of a new interpretation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a U.S. copyright law that criminalizes production and dissemination of software, devices, or services intended to circumvent the digital rights management (DRM) technology that controls access to copyrighted works. The U.S. Copyright Office, a branch of the Library of Congress that meets to discuss exemptions every three years, oversees management of the DMCA.

Renee Hobbs, professor of communication at Temple University’s School of Communications and Theater, was one of a handful of educators who led a formal petition of the Copyright Office in 2009 to receive an exemption that would allow educators and students to legally “rip” excerpts of copy-protected movie DVDs for comment and criticism in media or film studies classes. “Ripping” is the process of copying audio or video content to a hard disk, typically from removable media.

Thanks to this small but determined group’s efforts, certain higher-education students and teachers now can rip movie excerpts legally to make commentaries and compilations, as well as other works.

Hobbs, who teaches courses in media literacy and media’s effects on children and society, says the change will help college-level instructors and students use excerpts from copyrighted materials to create “remix” videos for a wide variety of instructional purposes. For example, a recent video from a student in one of her courses used clips from 25 different movies to comment on how menstruation is negatively depicted in film.

“Remix videos … can be used to question some of the assumptions of contemporary culture and offer a critical perspective,” Hobbs said.

Before the new ruling, she explained, the DMCA made it illegal to rip portions of DVDs by bypassing the copy-protection code on a disc using easily available software programs such as Handbrake, unless the user qualified for a special exemption given in 2006 to film professors—the only educators who were legally entitled to rip film excerpts from movies owned by their department libraries for teaching and learning.

“Media literacy educators depend on the use of copyrighted materials,” Hobbs said. “We can’t do our job without using them. Educators want to be lawful, and we didn’t want to bypass encryption when it wasn’t legal to do so.”

Thanks to the new ruling, Hobbs’ students studying mass media and children will be asked to develop projects that explore various themes in children’s movies. Hobbs said she will feel more confident about requiring her students to use screen capture tools like Jing to develop writing and speaking skills.

However, not all students and professors are affected by the ruling.

Students can legally rip movie excerpts only for their work in film or media studies courses—meaning students in subjects like history and sociology won’t have the exemption. K-12 students and teachers also are still at a disadvantage.

The Copyright Office deemed K-12 teachers and students ineligible for the exemption, and instead indicated that they should use only screen captures of a film, because K-12 education doesn’t need access to visually high-quality clips, officials ruled.

Hobbs speculated that the exemption’s lack of reach might have to do with pressure from the film industry.

“The [Motion Picture Association of America] and Warner Brothers did not wish to see this exemption expanded, that’s for certain,” she said. “Even though the film industry acknowledges the legal rights of educators and students to create film clip compilations, they pointed out that it doesn’t have to be easy.”

Meris Stansbury

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