Customer Dissatisfaction

I made a few comments on a thread at Inside Higher Education concerning UCLA’s recent decision to stop the streaming of video materials for classes behind password-protected course management systems, in response to pressure from the Association for Information and Media Equipment.

The comments thread ended up touching on some broader perennial issues on copyright, fair use and academic publishing which I’ve frequently discussed at this blog, and probably will discuss again. Let me focus here on the particular question of the classroom use of video material and a simple but powerful response that I think academics in general could and should offer to AIME and its clients.

Once upon a time, if you asked your library to acquire audio-visual material, you generally assumed that you would need to schedule a time for all members of the class to watch that video. That was what the technology afforded. This was far from ideal compared to assigned reading. You didn’t have to manage the schedule of all members of a class to ensure that reading took place before a class session. You assigned it, students did it at their convenience. Coordinating a film showing in contrast was a serious pain in the ass. This tended to cap the numbers of faculty willing to make heavy use of such materials in their courses.

Coupled to that, the relative price of films and the technology necessary to show them was up until relatively recently was very high compared to most print materials.

This began to shift somewhat as viewing technology became cheaper and more ubiquitious. Now you could reasonably assign students to view a film at their own convenience. On the other hand, there was still a bottleneck compared to a reading assignment. If asked 35 students to view a film within a two-day interval and made no further efforts to coordinate showings, I almost guaranteed that some would not be able to do the assignment. This was equally true, however, when assigned readings were based on a limited number of copies kept in binders on library reserve.

Being able to make short fair-use selections of larger texts available digitally changes the game for reading, and the same would be true for film which is streamed to a course member’s individual computer at their convenience. (I should add that we don’t do that here at Swarthmore at the moment.) This is, in short, a simple case of technological progress, of a new technology responsively solving a long-standing problem and improving the basic infrastructure of teaching. It lets us teach from a wider range of material in a more effective way, to accommodate the real schedules and needs of our students.

So along comes AIME, acting on behalf of its clients, and says, “If you want to do things that way, you need to pay us more, and pay us in a format where we may at some later date unilaterally revoke or change the terms of end-user licenses whose terms have never really been legally tested.”

Let’s leave aside all the endless quarrelling over what fair use is or is not under current law, or even what it should be. Let’s also leave aside mainstream commercial film and video distributors, who aren’t especially dependent upon the educational marketplace. (Though with DVD sales declining rapidly, maybe even they can’t afford to scorn any significant customer base.) Let’s just talk about most of the companies who are AIME’s clients. Bullfrog. PBS Video. California Newsreel. Various other educational video producers.

Educational institutions are their customer base. Period. So here’s a simple response that is easily within the collective reach of educators: don’t buy the products of media companies that will not affordably accommodate a major technological innovation which substantially enhances our classrooms. No, we won’t pay a crazy-high institutional use fee that doesn’t even permanently resolve the question of future uses of that material on future technological platforms. Sell us material at the reasonable price you sell to individual users and allow us to use it to teach with.

If that puts you out of business, too bad for you, media producers. Because here’s what I think faculty need to remember. In most courses and most subjects, you don’t need film. Yes, you ought to have it, it’s important to have it, it’s useful to have it, but you can do without. So if the producers won’t accommodate the financial situation of our institutions and won’t accommodate the enabling technologies of our classrooms, bid them farewell. Someone else will eventually figure out how to make and distribute visual work which does make those accommodations.

Don’t leave this to the lawyers and the administrators. These are issues where faculty and librarians can decisively resolve matters the simple way any customer can. Where the product is sold to you under highly unfavorable terms, don’t buy.

I might add that there’s an additional step that would help even more: at least some producers of educational video also depend on academics as unpaid or low-compensated creators of content. Don’t participate in that fashion in making materials which will not be made available to other educators on favorable terms.

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7 Responses to Customer Dissatisfaction

  1. Laura says:

    BTW, the log in thingy gave me a 404, but on to the real comment . . .

    Just before I left BMC, this was precisely what I was working on–a way to purchase, store and distribute video for faculty to use, even faculty-created clips. The cost of the products and systems are exorbitant. There are systems/products out there that will digitize and stream in film you give them, but you have to get permission, which is costly beyond measure and then you still pay a huge amount for the digitization.

    By far the most expensive products to get streaming rights for were the educational video companies. You could get streaming rights for District 9 for a reasonable cost, but for a National Geographic video–ten to 100 times that much. One digitization/streaming company whose clients include Yale and Harvard, quoted us something like $20,000 per year to digitize and host 50 videos. We laughed.

    And then we went back to the drawing board. We had discussed plans to bring most of it in house, which had high costs, but was at least better than the costs being quoted to use from other places. And we thought we’d provide streams for reasonably priced videos but not for the truly costly ones and then allow faculty to upload their own clips for their classes. All the technology exists for that, but then the economy went to hell and having a “streaming video solution” was not a priority anymore. And the legal concerns raised by the article made a few of the IT and some of the library people nervous.

    I think your proposal is a good one–whether it work, who knows. Faculty tend not to be so good at boycotting stuff. 🙂

  2. Jerry White says:

    The real problem here is precisely with classes that can’t do without film and video: classes in Film Studies. Just saying that you won’t buy or rent from California Newsreel is like saying that you just won’t deal with Heinneman anymore; like them or not, they hold the key African work, and if you want to teach a world cinema course responsibly, or an African cinema class at all, you have to deal with them (or people equally difficult, like the late New Yorker Films).

    The way that Film Studies gets around the scheduling problem in most places is to include a lab section, basically an extra three hour session where the week?? film(s) are shown. You can?? make the lab, you can?? take the class. I suppose that a streaming-video option would solve the sorts of scheduling problems this sometimes creates for students.

    My objection there has nothing to do with copyright, though. Rather, all the streaming video I’ve seen is of such low quality that it’s impossible to think of it as viable for a Film Studies context. And the African Film Library is a real good example there; none of the stuff I have watched on that site is anywhere near good enough in terms of image quality to use in a classroom setting or as asssigned viewing. Sembene?? CEDDO, a film I cherish and would really like to introduce students to, looks horrible on that site; I’d much rather force students to watch the French-subtitled DVD than something so grainy and washed out. So video streaming may seem like a major technical innovation, but from where I’ve been sitting it doesn’t improve my classroom environment at all. Streaming video has made students accustomed to watching films that, basically, look like crap, and are thus denuded of most of their formal properties. This may be no big deal for a National Geographic video, but if you really want to teach students about cinema it’s becoming a real problem. Streaming video has led to less visual sensitivity, not more.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Agree on the quality of streaming videos. And the lab-section approach is the right one for now for Film Studies. In the really long-term sense it’s not even responsible for most other disciplines to ignore visual material. I just think most others can afford to starve out the trolls under the bridge trying to exort high fees for crossing to the other side.

    Laura, I knew a bit about the pricing, but that’s still amazing. So here what we have again is a crazy old-media monopoly that got used to ridiculous payoffs from institutions that were careless with their money and is freaking out both because new technologies are undercutting the monopoly and because the customers are suddenly fishing around in an empty purse for their last few bits of spare change. And so what do they do? Adapt to the new technology and acknowledge the new economic realities? No. They lawyer up and try to compel the world to go back to the way it used to be. It’s the Blanche DuBois approach to life.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    If I understand the President of AIME in that thread correctly, he’s claiming that UCLA could have paid $25.00 per title per year for streaming rights. That’s precisely the kind of fee structure that I think should lead us all to say, “Fine, you can keep your products, we don’t want them.” Much as I think academic publishers who think the way out of the current situation is to keep jacking prices on monographs for the increasingly smaller set of libraries willing to buy them at those prices are pretty much guaranteeing their own extinction.

  5. Tim – have you checked back in on the comment thread at IHE? The director of CA Newsreel stopped by and soiled the bed…

  6. Timothy Burke says:


    I have never seen a seller make a more convincing argument against buying his product. I think that comment ought to be circulated to every academic library in the country and shared with any faculty member who takes an interest in acquiring California Newsreel’s distributed films. I know I’m convinced after reading it: no more ever for us. If they’re that determined to soak the customers and prevent us from making good use of films on their list in contemporary classroom, fine by me. That leaves them one major market that I can see, namely, film festivals. If that’s enough for them, fine.

  7. Doug says:

    Does anyone care enough to contact filmmakers about what California Newsreels is doing with their films? It seems to me that some of them might get a bit exercised that the distributor is scaring off paying audiences rather than finding them. It’s an odd approach to distribution.

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