Can I play that video in my class? (or library, or assembly, or fundraiser…)

This is a response to a question from one of the ISTE forums on using video in online courses, especially ones using a password-protected Learning Management System (LMS). There were several points in the post, but the main question is whether it’s o.k. to rip videos from a DVD and post them to an LMS for students to view? 

Hi Ruben,

This is a great question and one that comes up often, in both brick-and-mortar and online courses, both of which may use LMS. Unfortunately, many educators believe that if they purchase a video, then it’s theirs to do with as they please, even showing it in classes. However, most commercial videos are licensed, which gives the license owner special rights, and you need to know what kind of license you own. For videos from most major studios, the license usually appears at the beginning of the video, sometimes paired with that familiar FBI warning. In most cases, commercial videos, even if you bought the DVD, are licensed only for personal use. That means that educators are likely infringing on the copyright of the owner of the video if they go to their favorite store, buy a DVD, and show it in its entirety in a class, at an assembly, as a reward, on a jumbo screen as a fund raiser… It doesn’t matter whether that showing is online or in person. You have to know what license you have.

Online streaming services, like Netflix and Amazon, and video-sharing sites, like YouTube and Teaching Channel, also have their own licensing agreements. They’re harder to find, but with a quick search and the click of a couple of buttons on the site you can often find the licensing terms for these sites. Most educators are unaware of video licensing and their obligations.

There’s always a bit of outrage and disbelief when I share this information, which was the reaction a couple of years ago when I shared this to a group of library/media specialists in a midwestern school district. But the assistant superintendent stood up and confirmed that the district had indeed been sanctioned three times in the past year by the owners of commercial video licenses and their lawyers were currently working to avoid substantial fines. It’s important to note that Copyright, Fair Use, and Public Domain are guidelines and not clear dictates. That’s why there are different interpretations, and the way these guidelines are tested is often through the courts. You probably don’t want to be a test case.

On the positive side, most commercial videos are licensed by one or more organizations (see as one example) and institutions can purchase these licenses for different uses, like annual licenses or a one-time showing. These are most applicable for in-person viewing. Its more complicated and still murky for online streaming. One thing that is very clear is that you can NOT change the format of the video (or other media) for showing, no matter what purpose or setting. For example, it’s likely a violation of copyright to scan an image from a book and show it in class if the book is the format you have. So, it is a violation of copyright to rip a DVD and post it online, even behind a password-protected LMS. You can post portions of it in the format it comes in, generally 10% or less, in accordance with Fair Use, but that’s not going to solve your problem. (The U.S. Copyright Office has Circular 21 with more guidance on this.)

The best advice I have for you is to visit your school/university librarians or media specialists. They are usually the experts in issues like this. Mine always was, and when I told her I wanted to show a movie in class she would tell me whether we owned a copy with an appropriate license or she could obtain one or not. If not, I had to have a Plan B. Your library/media center may have access to options that your university has purchased that you may not be aware of. I’m hoping others will reply with examples of how their institutions are licensing video for classroom use, because it’s a changing field.

Best of luck and I’ll be following to learn more,

P.S. If you’re an ISTE member, you can view other responses or contribute your own here.