Cinema studies prof obtains exemption to allow use of copyrighted movie clips in MOOCs

For Peter Decherney, a professor in the Cinema Studies Program in the School of Arts & Sciences, the use of movie clips is essential in his teaching. Due to his recent efforts, copyrighted digital video can be used by faculty across the United States in massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Assisted by the American University Law School Intellectual Property Law Clinic and the American Library Association, Decherney testified in May before a U.S. Copyright Office panel that oversees rulemaking involving the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA’s rules had prevented professors from taking portions from digitally locked videos to use in courses.

“It’s absolutely necessary in a media studies class to use video clips to look at questions of aesthetics and be able to analyze small details,” says Decherney, who is also a professor in the Department of English. “It might also be true in a foreign language class, where you want to see the expression on someone’s face as you’re watching them speak. It could also be used in a biology class, looking at a detailed microscopic image from a science video. It has implications across the curriculum.”

The copyright exemption was announced on Oct. 28, allowing professors teaching MOOCs to bypass locks on digital media, movies, TV shows, online videos, streaming videos, and Blu-ray videos for the first time.

Decherney can now use movie clips this spring in his “History of Hollywood” MOOC, part of Penn’s offerings.

“The lectures for my course are very heavily illustrated with clips and other kinds of images, and they wouldn’t make sense without the clips,” says Decherney. “To hear me describe a film image is OK, but if you can’t see it, you’re really not going to understand what I’m talking about.”

His course will cover the evolution of computer-generated imagery throughout the past several years, and he will use high quality Blu-ray video to illustrate the differences in the quality of the graphics from five or six years ago to present day.

This was the fourth time Decherney has successfully petitioned for an exemption to the DMCA. The first time, in 2006, he teamed up with faculty at the Annenberg School for Communication, including Dean Michael X. Delli Carpini, and won an exemption to allow professors to use copyrighted video for in-class lectures.

Decherney says he requested the exemption specifically for MOOCs this year as a separate issue from traditional classroom teaching because there are some different fair-use issues to consider.

The DMCA rules for MOOCs allows the use of copyrighted video clips by non-profit, accredited educational institutions on their own websites, or on a for-profit platform such as Coursera.

Peter Decherney