The Tricky Terms of the TEACH Act

Columbia's Copyright Advisory Office director Kenneth Crews has just posted a helpful roundup of rules and regulations that apply to programs based on distance or distributed learning.

An amendment to US Copyright Law known as the TEACH Act (that is, the "Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act") was added in 2002, meant to facilitate and regulate the distribution of copyright materials in distance education. Crews's summary of this act is worth looking at, if only to understand this law's devotion to a class session/DRM model.

As Crews puts it:

An institution deploying "digital transmissions" must apply technical measures to prevent "retention of the work in accessible form by recipients of the transmission . . . for longer than the class session" and to measures to prevent recipients from "unauthorized further dissemination of the work in accessible form." Both of these restrictions address concerns from copyright owners that students might receive, store, and share the copyrighted content. The law accordingly requires that the technological controls be "reasonable." In other words, do your best, and keep checking for the latest innovations. The notion of "class session" has stirred many questions. In general, it means that the student who properly accesses the materials will not maintain accessible copies after logging off the account. The student may return to the materials repeatedly during the course, but not be able to have them backed up or stored in accessible form outside of the course context.

The TEACH Act, then, bars students enrolled in a distance education course from storing their own copies of copyrighted material for reference after a 'session', let alone a course. It burdens institutions with a mandate to technically prevent students from accessing materials after the 'session' - to make them somehow expire, vanish. It's no wonder that Crews gently ends his summary of the TEACH Act by pointing to an alternate legal framework:

As educators consider the TEACH Act, they should be prepared to explore fair use and other alternatives when the new law does not yield a satisfactory result.