Schools Are Joining the Digital Copyright Battle

Online educators want the same rights to use book excerpts, music, and movie clips as classroom teachers have. Congress may be ready to help

Faculty at the University of Maryland's College of Education thought they were on to something when they hit on the idea of offering an online cirriculum for teaching secondary-school teachers. The courses, they figured, would be a great way to combat the state's mounting high school teacher shortage. The hope was that the convenience of online classes would entice working professionals looking for a job change or stay-at-home parents to pursue a teaching career.

But professors were stunned when they were denied copyright permission to broadcast instructional videos via the Web, even though the same videos were being shown in classrooms. "Digital distance education will be threatened with second-class status until local and remote educational content are brought into closer accord," says Gerlad A. Heeger, president of the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), which touts an online roster of 70,000 students worldwide.

Although interest in online education is booming, current copyright law makes some cybercourses almost impossible, schools claim. The reason: Professors can't transmit digital copies of movies, photographs, or music to students without first getting copyright permission and paying hefty licensing fees.


  That may sound fair, but consider that traditional classroom teachers have been able to use portions of books, music, and videos as they please since copyright laws were changed in 1976, long before the birth of the public Internet. Why should online colleges -- which have the same nonprofit status as their bricks-and-mortar counterparts -- be held to a different standard, wonder educators looking to kick-start online programs. Hence, UMUC, which has one of the largest online student bodies in the country, is now leading a charge on Capitol Hill to rewrite copyright law.

But unlike the David-vs.-Goliath battle between Napster and the recording industry, this is one fight the giants -- namely the recording, motion-picture, and publishing industries -- coud well lose. Educators have some powerful allies on their side -- Senator Orin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Representative Richard Boucher (D-Va.), head of the Congressional Internet Task Force. Both lawmakers took on the Recording Industry Association of America last year and urged it to reach an agreement with the controversial music file-sharing service Napster.

Now, they're pushing a bill that would amend the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to favor Internet-education pioneers over the powerful recording and motion-picture industries. Hatch's Technology Education & Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act would give online professors the freedom to show instructional videos, e-mail literary works, and download short music clips without getting permission or coughing up cash. And most copyright policymakers support the changes. "The current state of affairs is confusing and frustrating for educators," says Marybeth Peters of the U.S. Copyright Office, who has studied the issue since 1999 and favors tweaking current copyright law.


  Most publishers aren't happy about the prospect. "Market negotiations between intellectual-property owners and users is the best way to address this," says Marvin L. Berenson, vice-president of Broadcast Music Inc., a New York-based music-licensing group that wants Congress to leave copyright law as is. The Motion Picture Association of America is also lobbying Congress to issue voluntary licensing guidelines instead of taking a legislative approach.

Security is one reason for concern. Once digital copies of works are transmitted over the Internet, they're more prone to piracy. Peer-to-peer software programs like Napster proved what can happen when digital versions of copyrighted music end up in the hands of a few tech-savvy students. As a caveat, Congress is demanding that colleges encrypt digital transmissions so students can't copy materials for personal use.

Still, music, movie, and book producers are skeptical that current security technology is 100% foolproof. "No changes should be made to existing copyright law without ensuring that technological safeguards are in place to prevent unauthorized reproduction," says Denise Incorvaia, associate counsel to the RIAA.

Money is another issue. Colleges say they can't afford to pay licensing fees, since the bulk of their financial weight is behind marketing programs, a wise strategy considering the number of online programs has exploded from 22 three years ago, to more than 300 today. For Internet-only schools like Online, startup costs aren't absorbed by a major university, so even a $500 to $1,000 licensing fee for using copyrighted material could be onerous. "There's prohibitive expense and paperwork involved," complains Dr. Paul LeBlanc, president of Vermont's Marlboro College, which provides an Internet-based curriculum targeted at working professionals.


  The opposition isn't buying that argument. "No one in Congress is advocating legislation to eliminate payment for computers, Internet access, and faculty salaries. Why should the costs of course content be exempt from payment?" says Allan R. Adler, the Association of American Publisher's vice-president for governmental affairs.

But Hatch's TEACH Act has bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. Boucher sums it up this way: "Something shouldn't be available on the school library shelf or in the classroom for free and available only by payment on the Internet." Unless the publishing, recording, and motion-picture industries can reach agreement with educators and soon, Congress may well step in.

By Nicole St. Pierre in Washington

Edited by Patricia O'Connell