At the Copyright Resources Center, our job is to help members of the Ohio State community understand copyright law and how it affects their work.  This week, we are focusing on Fair Use – because it is Fair Use Week!  If you’d like an introduction to Fair Use Week, check out our earlier blog post for a quick rundown of Fair Use and why we spend an entire week celebrating it.

For Fair Use Week 2017, we wanted to educate ourselves on how Fair Use affects some of our closest clients.  In particular, I spoke with John Muir, a veteran Instructional Designer (ID) who helps design awardwinning online courses for The Ohio State University.  He has almost a decade of experience designing online courses, with the last four years spent in the Office of Distance Education and eLearning at OSU.  As an ID, John not only counsels faculty on designing online educational experiences, but also assists them with populating those online classrooms with content. It is the content piece that has John in frequent communication with the Copyright Resources Center.  John sat down with me to talk about how Fair Use impacts his work as an Instructional Designer.

John was first introduced to copyright, as it applied to his work with online content, by the Napster file-sharing litigation. He said it highlighted, and helped to dispel, the common myth that works on the internet are “just there for the taking.”  By the time he came to OSU, John says he had “an awareness of copyright”, but it wasn’t until specific questions started popping up that Fair Use came into the picture.  His biggest takeaway from learning about Fair Use is that “copyright is not black and white”.  Now, when working with faculty to design courses, John can help faculty members fully assess the copyright situation.  Instead of asking whether their use is okay under the exception, John works with faculty to reframe their expectations of Fair Use.

He says this reframing is particularly helpful because copyright can seem particularly scary on the internet, which can be “a place of vulnerability”.  When working with faculty transitioning from in-person to online teaching, Fair Use is a way to get faculty to understand that copyright is contextual and not a binary, black and white issue.  By reframing copyright through the lens of Fair Use, John finds that it can give faculty more freedom to evaluate their course materials and make choices.  It takes copyright out of the often foreign realm of “the law” and places it into the contexts of intellectual creativity and respect for other scholars.  These more familiar contexts allow faculty to feel a greater ownership of the decisions they make with their online courses.  The change of context can also help faculty be more creative and lead to a “richness of materials in the course”.

The issue with Fair Use is that the benefits only accrue if faculty are willing to buy in.  Fair Use, despite its usefulness as a copyright exception and a tool to inspire ownership and creativity, can feel unwieldy. This is particularly true for individuals unfamiliar with its use.  In John’s experience, many faculty don’t like working with the Fair Use exception, because it doesn’t provide a clear and easy answer.  They may prefer to work towards an ability to claim an exception under the TEACH Act.   However, with a proper introduction to the benefits of Fair Use, many faculty enjoy using it because it can give them wider discretion in choosing materials for their course.  It also gives them more control in decision-making regarding course content.

I learned a lot discussing Fair Use with John.  I was particularly struck by his innovative interpretation of Fair Use as a teaching tool.  While the importance of Fair Use as an exception to copyright was mentioned, that was not its most important function.  As a teaching tool, Fair Use has helped John highlight some of the philosophical underpinnings of copyright and deliver a greater overall understanding of its importance, both to American culture and to our work here at The Ohio State University.