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Using Content in Course Management Systems

Course-Management Systems (CMSs) are enhancing the educational experience for both face-to-face and distance learning by making it easier for students and instructors to communicate, teach, and learn. While the value of a CMS is clear, there is much confusion when it comes to CMSs and copyright.

Many CMS vendors offer publisher-created content with their systems. They also offer schools and faculty the tools required for uploading and posting content — including readings and course syllabi — as well as other functionality, such as interactive student chat; instructor Q&A; student monitoring, testing and assessment; and grading and other course-management functions. These easy-to-use tools allow instructors and others to upload information themselves, bypassing traditional controls for securing copyright permission and placing new responsibilities on instructors and IT departments.

Instructors, IT department personnel, staff members, and others who upload content to a CMS often believe that because the content is password-protected, copyright permission is not required or that someone else has obtained it prior to the registration process. This is not true. Unlike publisher-created content from the CMS vendor (who has already obtained the necessary permission), content uploaded by faculty members and others typically requires copyright permission.

When it comes to copyright, there is no difference between digital and paper-based environments. While CMSs often replace the use of course packs, classroom handouts, and library reserves, traditional copyright rules still apply. If you need permission to use the content in paper format (such as the content available to multiple students in course packs), you almost certainly need permission to use the content in an electronic format (such as the content available to multiple students through a CMS or on CD-ROM).

To clarify the copyright requirements for a CMS, consider the following guidelines:

  • Vendor-provided content – This is content developed by publishers and sold with, or in addition to, the CMS. Copyright licensing is usually included in the price of the content; therefore, copyright requirements are likely to have been met.
  • Content uploaded by faculty, staff, or others – This is content not provided by the CMS vendor that is added to the CMS. The institution must adhere to traditional copyright law in reproducing this content for use by multiple students. In general, if you need to obtain permission to use the content in paper format, you probably need permission to use it in electronic format, as well.
  • Library-provided content – This is content that is licensed by library or institution license, and is available as part of the library’s regular holdings or through subscriptions. Access to this content by faculty, students, and others is governed by the license for the content. Review the current license carefully to determine what copyright permission is included, if any.

In 2002, the Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act became law. The TEACH Act has expanded the scope of fair use for the performance and display of copyright-protected materials in a distance-education environment, including by means of a CMS.