Skip to the main content

The Digital Learning Challenge: Obstacles to Educational Uses of Copyrighted Material in the Digital Age


Executive Summary:

This foundational white paper reports on a year-long study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, examining the relationship between copyright law and education. In particular, we wanted to explore whether innovative educational uses of digital technology were hampered by the restrictions of copyright. We found that provisions of copyright law concerning the educational use of copyrighted material, as well as the business and institutional structures shaped by that law, are among the most important obstacles to realizing the potential of digital technology in education. The paper builds on four detailed case studies of initiatives that have encountered such obstacles. Each of these initiatives is moving forward, but only by fighting against a copyright-related system that instead should be helping educators accomplish their goals.  The four case studies are:

  • A plan to use social networking software to help new social studies teachers interact and share classroom resources, which confronts copyright problems when teachers incorporate third-party content into their materials;
  • The need of film studies professors to bypass encryption on DVDs – likely in violation of federal law – in order to show selected film clips to their students;
  • An effort to make a digital database of hard-to-find but important American music available on college campuses, which encountered massive obstacles in the rights clearance process;
  • The shortcomings of special statutory provisions intended to benefit public broadcasters, but limited to over-the-air broadcast so that they have become nearly irrelevant as the need to distribute content on multiple digital platforms increases.

Drawing on these case studies, other research, and comments made by a cross-section of scholars, lawyers, librarians, and educators who participated in two day-long workshops organized as part of the project, the following emerged as the most significant copyright-related obstacles to educational uses of content:

  • Unclear or inadequate copyright law relating to crucial provisions such as fair use and educational use;
  • Extensive adoption of “digital rights management” technology to lock up content;
  • Practical difficulties obtaining rights to use content when licenses are necessary;
  • Undue caution by gatekeepers such as publishers or educational administrators. 

While the primary task of the foundational white paper was to identify these obstacles, the paper concludes with some discussion of paths toward reform that might improve the situation. It suggests that certain types of legal reform, technological improvements in the rights clearance process, educator agreement on best practices, and increased use of open access distribution would help overcome the obstacles we identified.

You can download the Digital Leaning Challenge as a PDF from SSRN or the attachment below, or you can find an HTML version of the full report here.

This work is supported in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

Projects & Tools 01

Digital Media Project (DMP)

The goal of the Digital Media Project is not to advance a simple agenda but instead to help educate stakeholders – government officials, the media, artists, businesspeople, and…