Using Video in Your Classroom


What started as a simple question (“Can I make a DVD of video clips to use in my class?”) ended in a conversation between faculty members, academic technologists and media experts. The discussion moved quickly beyond computer software to copyright restrictions, the idea of fair use, and the potential impact of copyright law in teaching and learning. Since video has become an important tool for classroom teaching across a variety of disciplines, we’ve attempted to capture the most important points in that discussion in this brief article.

The American copyright system is peculiar in that we don’t know if we infringe copyright unless a court tells us we have. In other words, we only know for sure if we have violated a copyright when we get sued—a situation that most of us would prefer to avoid.

For educators, the crux of copyright law is the concept of “fair use.” Fortunately the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) has put together a guide for understanding the otherwise confusing impact of copyright laws in the classroom. As the SCMS guide explains, faculty members rely on three different aspects of copyright law when using media in the classroom.

  1. Copyright law allows for certain “safe harbors” in which copyright owners have limited rights. Of these protected uses, as the guide explains, “the fair use doctrine affords the broadest protection for use of copyright materials because it is a general and flexible standard.
  2. In general, fair use allows people to use copyrighted materials without authorization for purposes such as “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use).”
  3. Fair use allows for a wide range of uses while still protecting certain rights of the copyright owners. For instance, as a faculty member, you can screen media works, in their entirety or in segments, but you can only use a “lawfully made copy.” So, you can screen a film using, say, a library copy of a DVD, but probably not using a burned DVD you made from a rental disk.

Anyone who actually tries to teach this way quickly realizes how clumsy the process becomes in comparing different parts of a video, or, even more complexly, trying to compare scenes between works. Students quickly lose the continuity of the discussion while the faculty member spends class time swapping disks and cuing up content. Few lawyers, congressional representatives or industry lobbyists have had the opportunity to stand in front a class while feeding a handful of legal DVDs into a classroom podium. Faculty members who have had this experience typically cut back on their learning goals, abandon this type of material all together or decide to take their chances with minor violations. (Sort of like driving 75 on the beltway?)

If you are a member of a media or film studies department, however, you were permitted to create clip DVDs if your department library has a copy of the film. This exemption is currently under consideration for renewal (it expired in October 2009), and has been extended until new exemptions are announced. The latest version of this exemption currently being considered argues for extending the exemption to students and including all videos owned by a university library. For more information, you can find more on the US government’s copyright website. (1)

Critics such as Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig, founding board member of and author of numerous books on technology and copyright law, believe that the copyright system is so badly broken that it impossible for faculty members to effectively do their jobs within it’s constraints. He lays the major part of the blame for the continuing insanity squarely on the shoulders of those of us in the academic community who allow this insanity to persist. He doesn’t think we should reject copyright law, but instead we should “feel entitled to question the system” and demand that the copyright law makes sense in an academic environment. Students and faculty have the most to gain by more rationale methods and clearly defined protections for how we actually teach and learn, but universities typically have not been very effective in influencing copyright law.

Interrogating current copyright law on ideological grounds is only one part of using media in class. Equally important is the practical side of actually showing the media to your students.

The common understanding among faculty and technologists, which one could theoretically still be sued for, is that there is a line between duplication and clips. Creating a DVD of clips to use for teaching purposes seems more palatable than burning entire copies of DVDs. However, if you ask Academic Technology for help, it is assumed that you have secured the proper permissions to create the media you have and you will probably be encouraged to create the clips on your own computer. That is to say, you will be on your own.

From a practical standpoint, if you need to use clips from a DVD in class, you are safest if you show those clips in your class from the original DVD. While this may not be the most graceful solution for mixed-media presentations, you can streamline your presentation by playing the DVD from your laptop using certain media player software that allows you to bookmark places in the DVD. While other uses may be protected, you won’t know until someone is sued.


  2. Larry Lessig’s Educause Presentation see: Lessig’s remarks actually start around 1/2 hour in.

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