MOOCs and Libraries: Copyright, Licensing, Open Access

[OCLC and the University of Pennsylvania Libraries held a forum on MOOCs and Libraries on March 18th and 19th. This is the second post in a short series on that event.]

As I learned from my interviews from librarians who are engaging with MOOCs, one of the main points of engagement for libraries (in fact, sometimes the only point of engagement!) is around licensing and clearing copyright for materials used in courses, or giving advice to others on these topics. We were fortunate to attract three excellent speakers on this topic: Kevin Smith (Scholarly Communications Officer, Duke University), Kenny Crews (Director, Copyright Advisory Office, Columbia University), and Kyle K. Courtney (Manager of Faculty Research and Scholarship, Harvard Law School). It was great that we had representation from both Coursera and edX partner institutions. I am also grateful to Brandon Butler (Director of Public Policy Initiatives, Association of Research Libraries) for agreeing to moderate the session.

The group opted to cover the content in a Q & A format, with Butler pitching questions to the panelists. The group met once, briefly, by phone ahead of the meeting, but the smooth and easy exchange made it seem as if they has been working on their presentation for a much longer period of time. Of course the discussion was filled with copyright favorites, like “it depends,” but it was relatively light on the jargon. The panel was not only enjoyable, but following the session, I felt considerably more cheerful about issues around MOOCs and intellectual property. My somewhat out-of-order summary is below, but I commend the video to you — I’m tempted to call it “best of show,” because I had so many people tell me that they were surprised at how much they enjoyed it!

Butler started the session by highlighting that putting materials online brings issues around copyright to the forefront, making it a high stakes area for libraries. However, avoiding copyright issues altogether is also an area of risk for libraries; if MOOCs represent a cornerstone in online learning, where are the (mostly in-copyright and licensed) resources that libraries steward? The conversation flowed around several themes: permissions and licensing, fair use, linking, who owns the material created in MOOCs, open access, and continued advocacy.

Permissions and licensing:
Although it’s a very basic first step, reading and understanding licences (and what they do and not allow) is key, since use depends on what the license says. If possible future agreements should allow for the use of materials in MOOCs. Because of the importance of agreements, librarians who deal with licensing may become, according to Crews, “the most important person in the building.” If use is not covered under a licence, request permission. Don’t be shocked if you don’t get an answer. At Duke, experiences with getting permissions quite varied — most often there is no response. Sometimes you get a yes, other times an ask for a big fee. Try to appeal to the “marketing opportunity” inherent in a course with thousands if not hundreds of thousands of eyeballs. Dealing with permissions and licensing is something that edX institutions generally try to avoid, relying instead on fair use and open resources, Courtney explained,

Fair use:
Smith started with a note of caution on fair use; copyrighted materials should be used with care especially because of the large online audience, and use should be clearly tied to criticism and commentary, or is being used in a way that could be considered transformative. However, he firmly reinforced that it’s important to push on fair use because in this environment, it’s impractical not to. Panelists offered words of caution and instruction: it’s important to work with faculty and others on the production team to make sure that embedded materials are only what’s needed for the specific pedagogical purpose. As an example, if you are referring to a Monty Python film, use only the small bit that’s being commented on, and link out to an authorized version of the video on YouTube or elsewhere. Kevin Smith on MOOC fair use of Monty Python video: Linked to authorized YouTube copy, copied small bits specifically commented on. Which brings me to…

This surprised me and is both a practical and inventive copyright workaround. If you can’t get permission or make a fair use case. Provide a link to materials online elsewhere. If you can’t embed the materials, cite them and leave students to find them on their own.

Who owns the MOOC?:
This can be a complicated question, and of course some of this depends on the agreement with the platform partner. Depending on your campus environment, work may be considered “work for hire,” with copyright held by the university. In courses with complicated production you may have many creators. Best practice would be to understand the terms, bring all relevant players together, and get written, signed agreements in order to have clear lines around who owns MOOC content.

Open access:
Working with faculty around these complex issues can help to reinforce the central importance of convincing faculty to retain their copyright, and to take charge in being “good stewards” of their own intellectual property. And of course if it’s an open, you can ask faculty who teach MOOCs to make their materials open access. (I will add a personal observation that I don’t believe that MOOCs are likely to be the turning point with faculty in regards to copyright or open access issues — I think that is more likely to happen due to pressure in their individual disciplines, but that’s just a hunch.)

Remember that libraries are involved in both “risk mitigation and education maximization.” Crews said, if you rely on fair use, you will sometimes need to say “no” to faculty, but we can also help find suitable replacement content. Librarians can play an important role in not only giving fair use guidance and seek permissions, but also recommend public domain or openly licensed resources that could be freely used. And of course, sharing information with one another is a form of advocacy.

Some useful, additional tidbits:

  • If you are called out on copyright, the first thing to happen is not a lawsuit, it’s a takedown.
  • Steer clear of using in-copyright humorous images just for the “LOL factor.”
  • Fair use is a muscle — use it.
  • Some additional resources:
    The ARL Code of Best Practices in Fair Use is an excellent resource. So is the Issue Brief on MOOCs (October 2012). Smith and Crews both have blogs that are worth following if you are interested in tracking IP/library issues. Courtny also has launched a blog recently, so tune in there as well.