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.