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March 8, 1999 - March 21, 1999
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Legal Counsel Warns Distance Learning
Faculty of Web Copyright Concerns


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By Andrew Lin
The Lantern
Ohio State University
Published Mar. 8, 1999


(U-WIRE) COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Faculty members need to be wary of copyright laws when trying to use Internet-based distance education, according to an Ohio State associate legal counsel.

"The Internet is really one big photocopier," said Steven McDonald, associate legal counsel for O. State's Office of Legal Affairs. Each time a user views a Web page, a copy is created on the hard drive of the user's computer.

McDonald and Trisha L. Davis, an assistant professor with University Libraries, spoke to faculty members on Tuesday about copyright and licensing laws as they apply to the Internet and distance education. The government has not yet established firm guidelines to deal with the conflicting interests of educational institutes and publishers, McDonald and Davis said.

Their speeches were part of the Conference on Intellectual Properties, which was sponsored by Technology Enhanced Learning and Research.

Current provisions allow limited use of copyrighted work by nonprofit organizations for educational uses in classrooms or similar places, McDonald said. A distance education provision allows for sending course material through satellites, but the law does not address Internet transmission.

"This is a huge political fight right now," McDonald said. "The Motion Pictures Association of America, the Recording Association of America, the American Publishing Association all have lots of big lobbyists fighting to make sure distance education does not extend to the Internet."

Davis testified before a U.S. copyright office public hearing on Feb. 12. Congress ordered the office to hold three hearings and then provide a report on distance education by April 28.

"From the publisher's perspective, we are a true threat to them commercially," Davis said. "They talked about significant loss of income from our preparing our own courses and distributing them through the Web."

Some publishers are even questioning the status of universities as nonprofit organizations, she said.

"The publishers felt that there is an important need to protect their right in the digital environment," Davis said. "And most of us have no problem with their wanting to protect their right if we can continue to have fair use rights and some kind of exemption for basic educational purposes."

In the meantime, McDonald and Davis offered their advice to faculty members who wish to display copyrighted work on course Web sites.

Using passwords to limit Web site access to only authorized students or faculty members can protect faculty members from infringement laws, Davis said.

Faculty members should always include copyright notices when distributing copies to students, McDonald said.

Both Davis and McDonald urged extreme caution when considering licensing agreements with publishers.

"If you're signing a license, make sure you know what you're committing to," Davis said. "If it has to be signed, you should be working with the Office of Legal Affairs anyways."

Faculty members should beware of requests for confidential information, and should also be careful who the "users" are as referred to in a contract.

"Never take responsibility for what your students may or may not do," Davis said. Faculty have no way of knowing or controlling what their students are doing, she said.

In one case, the library was given access to a database, Davis said. One student took an article out of the database and included it as part of a newsletter that was then circulated about the world.

OSU's Office of Legal Affairs later received a complaint draft from the article's original publisher requesting $25 million in damages, McDonald said.

Overall, faculty members should not even be seeking individual written agreements.

"If you have ever signed a license agreement as your job with the university, don't ever admit to it, because you're not allowed to," Davis said. Janet Ashe, the vice president for the Office of Business and Administration, is the only one who can officially make legal agreements.

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