Courts to Decide on Classroom 'Fair Use' in Digital Media

What is fair use in copyright law? Even before the Internet, university educators grappled with the extent to which protected works could be incorporated into classroom teaching and materials. In today's world of rapidly changing digital media, proper fair use practices are even more uncertain. Because legislation has not kept up with technology, these questions are now being decided in the courts. Schools offering Animation degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

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Interpreting Copyright Law

Two high-profile copyright cases in U.S. courts are drawing a lot of attention from academics around the country. Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and SAGE Publications are joint litigants in a suit filed against Georgia State University in which the plaintiffs allege the university illegally reproduced copyrighted content by making it available to students on course websites. UCLA also stands accused of copyright infringement, the defendant in a lawsuit filed by Ambrose Video Publishing and the Association for Information Media and Equipment. The plaintiffs in that case maintain the school improperly made videos available for students online.

Welcome to the confusing world of copyright law. In both of the above cases, academic institutions claim that the manner in which they're using copyrighted material falls under fair use. Fair use is one of the primary aspects of copyright law cited by educators to share protected content with students and reproduce copyrighted works in scholarship. There has traditionally been a significant amount of space given to individuals reproducing content for classroom, research and other academic uses. But the rapidly evolving digital world has presented new questions about what may or may not constitute fair use.

Recent lawsuits reflect growing tension between academic institutions and publishers, who are keen to assert what they feel are their rights in the 21st century digital landscape. While technology has dramatically changed media, there has not been a significant revision of copyright law since the Copyright Act of 1976. Academic institutions, publishers and legal analysts are all attentive to how these and other active copyright cases will play out because they represent potentially precedent-setting rulings on how copyright law will be interpreted for digital media.

Fair Use in the Balance

Just why are these cases drawing such intense scrutiny? According to Nancy Sims, a copyright specialist at the University of Minnesota, the suit against Georgia State University has 'potential to drastically rewrite many academic practices.' If the university loses the court case, she says the ruling could limit what content can be freely provided to students - and how it's shared. Academics view the extent to which publishers would like to restrict use as an apocalyptic possibility that would threaten academic freedoms and creativity. The case is seen by many as the most important copyright trial in recent decades.

The UCLA court case is also quite significant. The ruling on whether the school can continue to make third-party videos available on class websites could help shape how tenets of fair use are applied (or not applied) in digital environments. If the university wins the lawsuit, educators would likely be able to continue to make video content available to students for academic purposes. In the event the publisher wins, university teachers could be required to seek permission - and likely pay fees - to make content available to students.

While publishers and other content providers believe that fair use should not be interpreted to include providing works in online environments, most in academia believe their uses of works do fall under fair use guidelines. Given how dated copyright legislation is, the legal terrain in these cases is murky, making for a virtual frontier. As a result, copyright is likely to be legislated in the courts for years to come.

If you're interested in other ways new technologies are affecting academia, learn about the pros and cons of digital textbooks.

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