of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 3

February/March 2000

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Copyright Protection in Online Education

by Weihong Peng

After receiving my BS and MS degrees in library and information sciences from Peking University, I worked for two years in the Institution for Astronautics Information of China Aerospace, Inc., where my job involved indexing, abstracting and journal marketing. I'm currently a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. I'm interested in information policy and especially in intellectual property issues in the digital environment. In this paper, I outline how social informatics might contribute to policy development in this particular domain.

Protecting Intellectual Property Rights vs. Promoting Online Education

As we march into the 21st century, new technologies have brought higher education both opportunities and challenges. Particularly, the application of digital technologies has caused a great expansion of distance education. The tension between protecting intellectual property rights and promoting education, however, has never been as great as it is now. On the one hand, improved copyright protection in the online environment is increasingly demanded by copyright owners because of the added difficulty of controlling the transmission of copyrighted works on the Internet. On the other hand, many representatives of educational institutions believe that the current laws have limited reasonable educational use of copyrighted materials because digital technologies have added ambiguity to fair use principles and made licensing increasingly difficult.

Section 403 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which was enacted into law on October 28, 1998, requires that the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress "after consultation with representatives of copyright owners, nonprofit educational institutions, and nonprofit libraries and archives, shall submit to the Congress recommendations on how to promote distance education through digital technologies, including interactive digital networks, while maintaining an appropriate balance between the rights of copyright owners and the needs of users of the copyrighted works." After intensive research, the Copyright Office issued its detailed Report on Copyright and Digital Distance Education in May of 1999.

The report has provided a comprehensive analysis of the status of intellectual property protection in distance education and valuable recommendations on possible changes to the current laws. But the information collected in the study by the Copyright Office is limited to a relatively high level; in other words, it reflects the views and experiences of only a minority of people typically those in upper management in relevant companies or institutions. I think it's worthwhile to study the topic with a somewhat different approach: to study "from the bottom up" online education activities in typical educational institutions, with a focus on those values and practices specifically related to intellectual property protection.

Why Social Informatics?

To study copyright issues in online education, aspects of institutional context and professional culture that might affect the balance between copyright protection and the promotion of education have to be taken into consideration. For example, some instructors might be proud to put their course syllabi online to share with other members of their professional community, while others might be more concerned with the possibility that people teaching similar courses would copy the syllabi in their entirety. To some extent, it is this inconsistency in attitudes toward acceptable behaviors related to online educational activities that makes the development and application of law even more difficult. Also, a major issue under discussion about protection of online intellectual works is whether technology could provide satisfactory protection now or in the near future. I am concerned that the same technology would have quite different effectiveness in different people's eyes. Furthermore, it seems to me that various factors interact to contribute to the current situation and, therefore, that addressing each of the factors in isolation would not solve the problem at all. Technology, information policy at different levels (international, national, state, institutional), social standards and people's awareness of issues and technologies related to intellectual property should work together to achieve the balance people are seeking.

To gauge the feasibility and value of a social informatics approach to copyright issues in online education (in other words, to look closely at related social practices, values and institutional context from bottom up), I conducted an informal e-mail survey of faculty members and Ph.D. students in our school. I asked about their experiences and problems related to intellectual property in online education. Thirty-four responses were received and one follow-up interview conducted. Three issues that this approach shed light on are the scope and nature of online educational material; the adequacy of technological solutions to copyright protection; and the fit between institutional context and intellectual property laws.

According to the report issued by the Copyright Office, "the most fundamental definition of distance education is a form of education in which students are separated from their instructors by time and/or space." The report recognized that "an individual course may contain both classroom and distance education components." However, it failed to realize that because of the speed and convenience of information transmission and communication, the penetration of digital technology into the process of education is so common nowadays that online education activities have become an indispensable part of even onsite education. According to my informal survey, the majority of our faculty and Ph.D. students have put online for distributed public access at least one of the following: syllabi, lecture notes, research papers, reserved readings, student work, computer programs, digital photographs, personal Web pages or vitae, or conference presentation notes and slides. It appears that putting materials online is fast becoming an indispensable activity of modern education. Therefore, it is my opinion that in discussing intellectual property issues, it is important to consider implications for education generally, rather than just "distance education." Digital technologies increasingly support both onsite classroom-based courses and distance courses.

The Copyright Office reported on a variety of technical measures that are currently available to either limit access to copyrighted works online or to prevent or detect uses of those works. In our school, however, only a limited number of access restriction technologies have been employed. A number of people admitted that they had little awareness of available technology fixes. In addition, the cost of applying technology seemed to some people to outweigh its value. Applying technical protection is also complicated by the need to deal with the various formats of materials noted above. According to one faculty member: "It really varies by the material and other copyright restrictions. For example I put preprints online unrestricted but once they are published in a conference proceedings that holds the copyright, I have to remove them. Syllabi I put online with just a copyright statement. They are very public. Lecture notes, however, also are password protected."

Rather than talking about the rights of copyright owners abstractly, I asked my colleagues the extent to which they are concerned with possible misuse of their intellectual works. Concerns mostly center on the extent to which entire works are used by others; whether appropriate attribution and/or citation is given; and whether their materials are used for commercial gain.

The focus of the Copyright Office report is on changing the laws themselves. However, comments from GSLIS community members suggest the need for multilayered solutions, such as the following approaches:

  • technical protection
  • policy or law at international, national, state levels
  • national/international standards of fair use
  • institutional/professional guidelines
  • "evolving cyber-cultural standards" or general agreements on acceptable behavior
  • training at earlier ages for copyright protection
  • personal awareness of intellectual property threats and available protective actions.

 The last four points involve the institutional context and professional culture in which current or future laws would take effect. For example, to encourage people to put their intellectual works online to share with others, disparate concerns such as the following will need to be addressed by professional and institutional guidelines:

    If I have created resources and wish to distribute them under an open source or open content license, it may be necessary for me to negotiate with the school or the university to ensure they perceive no interest in restricting distribution or use of the resource.

    With the LEEP [our site-independent, Internet-supported] program we need to consider what rights we have to reuse course materials developed by faculty and put online. Our approach has been to give the faculty members the right to reuse the material as they wish, but the school also retains the right to give future instructors access to the material for the purpose of further developing courses for GSLIS.

    Territoriality: personal concerns may compromise professional resource sharing.

    In conclusion, I think a social informatics approach studying what a range of people in educational institutions think and do in everyday practice would provide valuable direction to the development of solutions associated with intellectual property protection in online education.

In pursuing this line of research further, I recommend the survey of a wider range of people across different universities. In addition, a more ethnographic approach would apply multiple social science methods, such as the following:

    observation of meetings, class sessions and other situations where relevant policy decisions are made;

    systematic analysis of what's really online at GSLIS or other educational institutions; and

    identification and analysis of professional and institutional policies at different universities.

Weihong Peng, a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, can be reached by e-mail at wpeng@uiuc.edu

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