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YouTube—and Educators—Win!

Earlier this year, YouTube celebrated its 5th birthday, and as seemingly belated birthday “gifts,” courts in the United States and Spain ruled in favor of YouTube in two widely watched copyright infringement cases. On June 23, 2010, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in Viacom. v. YouTube  that YouTube, as an online service provider, falls under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s (DMCA) “safe harbor” protection—and is thereby not responsible for policing copyright infringement on its site. The ruling claimed that instead it is the responsibility of the copyright owners to watch for infringed material and notify YouTube with take down notices, with which the court points out YouTube has quickly complied (Baum and Copland). Similarly, in September, a Spanish court ruled in a case brought by an Italian-based media corporation that “YouTube was not liable as long as it removed copyrighted material when notified by the rights holder” (Pfanner). In both cases, the media conglomerates quickly announced plans to appeal, but clearly it was a good season for YouTube.

While neither case dealt directly with educational uses of YouTube, they impact its availability in the classroom. For those of us who teach away from the stricture of firewalls that bar YouTube from many elementary and secondary classrooms, and who choose to use YouTube in our classes, such rulings serve to protect that resource’s ongoing availability. However, some may ask, why use YouTube in its ongoing state of flux—with its potential for videos here today and gone tomorrow in response to copyright holders’ DMCA sanctioned “take down notices.” Furthermore, there are arguments to be waged against what media professor, Alexandra Juhasz, refers to as YouTube’s “interchangeable, bite-sized, formulaic videos referring to either popular culture or personal pain/pleasure” (“Teaching on YouTube”). Nevertheless, or precisely because of YouTube’s reflective and contributory relationship with popular culture, it provides a rich arcade of videos that take learning to the students and their Web 2.0 world. More than simply supplementing a class with material in a mode popular with students, integrating YouTube videos in a class can also serve to develop students’ critical visual/media literacy skills—critical both in terms of developing analytical thinking and vital in this visually-drenched culture.

Such reasons are some of what prompted Pitzer College professor, Alexandra Juhasz, in Fall 2007 to teach a course solely about and on YouTube, aptly called “Learning from YouTube.” Although Juhasz notes that she “had been studiously ignoring [YouTube] . . . because every time I went there, I was seriously underwhelmed by what I saw” (“Teaching on YouTube”), she decided to create a “‘student-led’ course . . .  to primarily consider how web 2.0 (in this case, specifically YouTube) is radically altering the conditions of learning (what, where, when, how we have access to information)” (“Teaching on YouTube”).  Juhasz has critiqued this experience in blogs, interviews, conference presentations, and in an upcoming “video-book” to be available at no charge from MIT Press in the winter of 2010 (“On the Online Publishing”), but several of her observations in particular touch on the issue of YouTube and intellectual property.

In the US case, the court ruled that YouTube was an online service provider and as such was not responsible for its content. While some legal responses bemoaned the court’s attack on the DMCA, claiming that “the DMCA was never intended to allow service providers to exploit the statue’s safe harbors by designing an entire business model based on improperly profiting from copyrighted content” (Andrews), this is seemingly good news to those of us who use YouTube videos to supplement our courses.

However, for those who use YouTube to deliver course material or as a publication outlet for student work, it might not be time to celebrate. As amateur, “small-time copyright owners,” it isn’t feasible that we would be able to police the use of our videos (DeLong); however, for most of us—our students and ourselves—we are attracted to YouTube as a production and publication venue precisely because our work has the potential to reach a wide audience. In May 2010, YouTube began reporting that two billion videos are watched a day (“YouTube Fact Sheet”), up from one billion videos in October 2009 (“YouTube Beats Prime Time TV on 5th Birthday,” Network World). Of course for that potential exposure, there is a price. For example, Juhasz observed that as the work of a critiquing classroom moved to the open space of YouTube, where “anyone and everyone can see and also participate, . . . students were routinely judged by critical YouTube viewers who we would never see or know . . . [and that we] could not insure were as committed and attentive as were we” (“Teaching on YouTube”).  The thoughtful critiques of the classroom (or at least the ideal classroom) are not a given on YouTube, but one might argue that there’s much to be learned about critique itself from inside the fishbowl.

Despite YouTube’s recent legal victories, it is still important that we reflect on the copyright issues posed there. While we may forfeit some protections and stability there, for most of the millions of YouTube contributors, the price is worth it. And, while YouTube may not get to keep its birthday present from the U.S. District Court, given the number of copyright holders that have supported Viacom in its appeal, the news is still good for us as teachers and scholars who use YouTube in our classes to extend and to exemplify our lessons—and to bring the “real world”—our students’ world—into the classroom.

Submitted by:
Billie J. Jones, Assistant Professor
Director of First Year Writing
The School of Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication
James Madison University

Works Cited

Andrews, Cory. “Viacom v. YouTube: A Setback for Intellectual Property Rights.” 24 Jun. 2010. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.

Baum, Andrew and David Copland. “United States” YouTube Winds Safe Harbor in Viacom Copyright Suit.” 29 Jun. 2010. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.

DeLong, James. “YouTube Gets the Power of Eminent Domain.” 26 Jun. 2010. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.

Ionescu, Daniel. “YouTube Beats Prime Time TV on 5th Birthday.” Network World 17 May 2010. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.]

Juhasz, Alexandra. “On the Online Publishing and Re-Purposing of Learning from YouTube.” Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture 8 (2010). Web. 9 Nov. 2010.

—. “Teaching on YouTube.” Open Culture 22 Apr. 2008. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.

Pfanner, Eric. “YouTube Can’t Be Liable on Copyright, Spain Rules.” The New York Times 23 Sept. 2010. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.

YouTube. “YouTube Fact Sheet.” Web. 9 Nov. 2010.

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