Monday, May 12, 2014

Cut-Out Animations, MOOCs, and Copyright

Dear Rich: I am a university professor, preparing some Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). In my courses, I intend to explore different ways of telling a story, to try to engage as many students as possible with the material. Unfortunately I can't draw, so I have to come up with other cheap and easy solutions. For instance, I want to use cutout animation (Monty Python style) or shots of toy figurines of Alice in Wonderland, Bob the Builder and Charlie Chaplin for a course in cryptography. What rules should apply for this, especially given the context of education? Does the fact that I am using a commercial platform change anything? What if I do not intend to make money out of the courses myself? We don't think the distinctions between profit, or non profit or commercial and educational, will matter much in a copyright analysis. It may figure into a right of publicity analysis (see below) and it may matter for a fair use analysis ... but raising fair use arguments means you're playing defense against an unhappy copyright owner and we don't think you want to be in that position.
Cutting it out. As a general rule you should assume that if you're cutting out and animating a copyrighted image, then you're infringing. Whether you get hassled depends on whether the copyright owner finds out and cares enough to hire an attorney or write a letter. If you're seriously risk-averse, Bob the Builder and some versions of Alice in Wonderland are protected under copyright laws, so  you would stay away from these. Although some Charlie Chaplin films are in the public domain, the use of Charlie's image for a commercial enterprise may trigger right of publicity laws (yes, his estate has an agent). Normally, academic uses like yours might remain undetected but with the unlimited spread of MOOCs, you never know who will see what.

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