Universities Threatened Over Streaming of Educational Videos

UCLA students trying to catch up on classes online may feel like they’re missing out on something these days: The school in January instituted a ban on using videos as part of course web sites in response to threats of lawsuits by copyright holders. The move has provoked a wider debate about copyright and fair use in higher education, and some educators are so upset that they’re calling for a boycott of educational media publishers.

At the heart of the controversy is the Association for Information and Media Equipment (AIME), a trade group that represents some 16 publishers, including PBS and California Newsreel. AIME threatened UCLA with a lawsuit if it didn’t agree to put an end to the practice of distributing videos through course web sites without obtaining proper licenses to do so. AIME President Allen Dohra told NewTeeVee that her organization is undeterred by the backlash in the educational community, and that it plans approach other universities about this issue as well.

UCLA has been using a system called Video Furnace for years to give its teaching staff the option of posting videos to their course web sites, and the school has called it “one of the most effective teaching resources on the UCLA campus.” These videos can’t easily be accessed from off-campus computers, and course web sites are usually password-restricted. Some of the material posted through Video Furnace was apparently from publishers associated with AIME, and the trade group approached the school last year about this, threatening a lawsuit if the practice didn’t stop.

UCLA has stated that it believes streaming videos via Video Furnace to be covered by fair use exemptions to copyright law and that it hopes to make streaming video once again available as soon as possible. The conflict was known on campus since late last year, but only started to get national attention after The Daily Bruin and the online magazine Inside Higher Ed picked up on it at the end of January. The coverage provoked intense debate. Swarthmore College history professor Timothy Burke wrote in a comment that “academic institutions should stop using…the work of publisher(s) who are unwilling to allow that work to be used in a functional form,” and  American University Professor Pat Aufderheide called it a shame that UCLA gave in to AIME’s threats.

Publishers, on the other hand, argue that schools can show video streams as long as they obtain the proper license to do so. “Streaming is the present and the future for educational video,” said Dohra, adding: “There would be no future commercial video production of educational product if online use was allowed without compensation to the creators.” She said that most educational videos that are currently available for sale are also available to be licensed for streaming.

California Newsreel Co-Director Lawrence Daressa chimed in online as well, suggesting that schools should use the opportunity to explore other licensing models for online video content: “If students can afford to pay $12.50 to see ‘Avatar,’ why could they not afford $2.99 to rent a scholarly film on an important social issue for a week?”

Comments like that may not help to calm the waters. UCLA recently approved a 32 percent fee hike for its students, and the school has been cutting back on the availability of educational resources, videos being one of them. The school’s Instructional Media Lab is now closed on weekends and has reduced weekday hours, making it harder for students to view movies that are only available on DVD.