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The Terms that Bind


Accompanying nearly every item of electronic technology, whether it is software, database, or digital media device, is a document that dictates how that technology may be used. These documents, known more commonly as “terms of use” or “license agreements,” are contractually binding on both the provider and the consumer, even if that consumer is an academic institution and its constituents. A common misconception amongst users of electronic technology in an academic context is that these terms of use can be eschewed on grounds of educational fair use or academic freedom.

One example of such misconception is the use of Netflix subscriptions by academic libraries. Following the publication of an article in Library Trends detailing the workflow created at a community college library to manage a Netflix subscription, how the subscription was used as a tool for collection development, and the limitations of a subscription compared to library ownership of media, several libraries spoke out about their own experiences utilizing Netflix on an institutional basis. In response, several publications, including the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Libraries, reflected upon the legalities of this practice. The author of the Library Trends piece indicated that the library’s Netflix subscription complied with federal copyright law because teaching faculty were permitted to display legally obtained films in a face-to-face classroom situation. While her interpretation of copyright law is correct, whether or not the films were obtained “legally” is doubtful. Per the Netflix Terms of Use agreed to by any one subscribing to their service, “use of the Netflix service … is solely for your personal and non-commercial use.” This indicates that use of the Netflix service by an institution to circulate videos to their service population is a violation of these terms, which in essence is a breach of contract. Academic copyright expert and attorney Kevin Smith agrees. As quoted in the Chronicle, Smith states: “My personal opinion is that the risk of a contract problem makes it not worthwhile for us to have a program to lend discs that we borrow from Netflix.  It’s not a copyright issue. It’s an issue of the contract between the user and Netflix.”  Further, Netflix does not offer institutional subscriptions and “frowns upon” libraries loaning Netflix DVDs or video stream to faculty members to share with students.

Another common misunderstanding arises in the use of full text materials accessible through licensed databases. While libraries and universities strive to include the most liberal of usage terms when negotiating licenses for scholarly databases, oftentimes use is curtailed in the interest of access. Institutions are forced to not only pay high subscription costs but also bargain away certain uses in order to secure convenient and complete electronic access to full text scholarly journals for faculty and students. Yale University maintains an excellent web site dedicated to promoting the creation of agreements with publishers that assure access to knowledge. The site also provides links to many of the most common scholarly content publishers and hosts licenses. As an example of the challenge faced by libraries and academic institutions when trying to serve the needs of their community and at the same time comply with the legally binding terms of the publishers’ agreements, review the Terms and Conditions of Use of JSTOR. Paragraphs 2.1 and 2.2 specify the permitted and prohibited uses of content found on JSTOR. Pursuant to paragraph 2.1 “Authorized Users may search, view, reproduce, display, download, print, perform, and distribute Licensed Content” for a variety of purposes, including research activities and classroom instruction; however, such uses will be deemed in violation of the terms of the license should they appear to be any of the practices detailed in paragraph 2.2, such as the reproduction or distribution of content in bulk in course packs or electronic reserves. As stated previously, this reality is a reason why the academic community should champion open access.


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