Copyright, Distance Education, and the TEACH Act

by Kenneth Crews on August 19, 2010

When the TEACH Act was enacted by Congress in late 2002, many of us who had been working with copyright issues in distance education were delighted by the improvement in the law and relieved that the long process of debate and exploration had come to fruition. Congress included a “distance education” statute in the Copyright Act of 1976, but almost immediately it was ignored. It was a terrible statute. The intentions were honorable, but the lines drawn were absurd. By the 1990s, I was actually able to find books about distance education with chapters on copyright—and no mention of the statute on point. It was a phantom that deserved isolation.
I and others started to discover that statute (at Section 110(2) of the Copyright Act) as distance education expanded rapidly and the copyright issues became more pronounced. I wrote papers that attempted to explain the law, and I wrote an academic article that examined the underlying legal policies. You can find it here:
The late 1990s brought proposals in Congress to revise the law into something more realistic. I was then at Indiana University, where I coordinated a concerted effort among all of the colleges and universities in the state to speak out collectively on the importance of revising the law. I testified at public hearings held by the U.S. Copyright Office. I also visited the Watts Towers during a trip to Los Angeles, and there, by delightful coincidence, I happened to meet Congresswoman Maxine Waters. She was on the judiciary committee, which oversaw copyright legislation, and I bugged her on that lovely day about the importance of supporting the pending bill. Those were heady days.
Then came passage of the TEACH Act in 2002. It was a mixed blessing. Yes, the new law was vastly better than the old. However, the new law was a tad messy. It was not a brilliant example of drafting, and it was frankly tough to unravel and apply. I wrote one of the first summaries of the law, and I am happy to have given it a fresh look for posting here. Visit the new “distance education” page for additional materials to help you understand and apply the TEACH Act. It may not be the best law, but anyone engaged in the “transmission” of copyrighted materials for education should keep the TEACH Act on the list of options for complying with copyright law.
Kenneth Crews 


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