As teaching shifts online during the epidemic, it faces copyright issues
Sun Yang

Editor's note: Sun Yang is an associate professor of China University of Political Science and Law. This article reflects the author's views, and not necessarily those of CGTN.

Currently, tens of thousands of teachers are temporarily out of classrooms. The COVID-19 outbreak is forcing them to adjust themselves to the remote teaching through various kinds of online platforms. According to China's Ministry of Education, all schools from elementary to higher education must shift to online courses. While teachers are preparing their course with the assistance of interactive online software, some legal issues are emerging from the perspective of copyright law.

Since all remote teaching demands course content in the process of teaching, the materials such as class slides, audios, texts, and video clips are mostly the intellectual product. According to copyright law, people who independently make intellectual content have a right to protect it with a copyright. 

It is naturally accepted that teachers should have the authority to determine the specific use of their course materials by third parties, including their students. Without their permission, no one should copy, distribute, delete or modify the copyrighted course content. In an offline environment, copyright is controlled through physical copies which are purchased. This becomes a challenge in online classrooms.

In a traditional classroom setting, teacher has more control over the distribution of course content. /VCG

In a traditional classroom setting, teacher has more control over the distribution of course content. /VCG

With the uploading of course content, all materials are electronically stored in online platforms. Under the circumstances, the physical copies of course content turn into countless e-copies. Teachers now may find it costly to control circulation. To make matter worse, the ease of circulation usually equals to the low costs of copyright infringement. Consequently, remote teaching is most likely to impose legal risk against teachers as copyright holders.

Speaking of copyright infringement, teachers are not the only party that have concerns about the legal risk. Remote teaching relies on online platforms to facilitate communication between teachers and students. Unfortunately, online platforms should be cautious on the so-called "platform liability." Copyright law says that each online platform bears the obligation of deleting illegal content, disconnecting internet connection, or terminating an illegal account when the platform "knows or had reason to know" copyright infringement on its system. Therefore, ignoring copyright infringement may lead to copyright lawsuit between authors and platforms.

In the course of remote teaching, online platforms must balance two ends: Securing the protection of copyrighted course materials uploaded by teachers and saving the costs on system regulation so as to keep a good user experience. Recent news suggests some online platforms lack technological competence, resulting in connection problems on live streaming. Such undesirable experiences have lead to negative comments, weakening the reputation and acceptance of the business.

People trying out online education. /VCG

People trying out online education. /VCG

Remote teaching is not a one-sided process. Effective remote teaching calls for cooperation between well-prepared teachers and passionate students. To trigger students' passion, all course materials must be available to students through the online system in order to facilitate students' self-learning after class. This well-designed plan may still cause legal concern on the perspective of copyright law. Specifically, to what extent can the students legally use these course materials stored in the online platforms?

One may answer the question that all materials on platforms are free for use. This obviously is incorrect due to the copyright law. Common practice indicates that there usually is a contract, explicit or implied, between a copyright owner and a given online platform. Unless otherwise written in the contract, the copyright owners hold all rights against all unauthorized use of his or her work. In the case of remote teaching, students should follow the instructions from the teachers on the use of course materials. Downloading, sharing or editing on course content may violate copyright law.

Despite the undesirable experience, students as users on course content still have certain leeway to access necessary materials to facilitate their learning. The copyright law immune infringement liability when an unauthorized user demonstrates with preponderance of proof on educational or non-commercial use. Considering the inherently nature of currently remote teaching, students should be confident to appropriately use course materials in online platforms without the concern of liability issues.

Remote teaching poses challenges to teachers, online platforms and students during the outbreak of epidemic. Most of the challenges comes from the copyright law on the legitimate use of course content. This does not mean our copyright law is the impediment to our education. Rather, discussion on how copyright law follow and by respecting the law, the law would guarantee a stable operation to our society. 

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