The Digital Learning Challenge: Obstacles to Educational Uses of Copyrighted Material in the Digital Age


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Type of work: White Paper


Digital Content | Education | Intellectual Property | Open Access


This foundational white paper reports on a year-long study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, examining the relationship between copyright law and education. In particular, we wanted to explore whether innovative educational uses of digital technology were hampered by the restrictions of copyright. We found that provisions of copyright law concerning the educational use of copyrighted material, as well as the business and institutional structures shaped by that law, are among the most important obstacles to realizing the potential of digital technology in education.

Drawing on research, interviews, two participatory workshops with experts in the field, and the lessons drawn from four detailed case studies, the white paper identifies four obstacles as particularly serious ones:

  • Unclear or inadequate copyright law relating to crucial provisions such as fair use and educational use;
  • Extensive adoption of “digital rights management” technology to lock up content;
  • Practical difficulties obtaining rights to use content when licenses are necessary;
  • Undue caution by gatekeepers such as publishers or educational administrators.
  • The white paper concludes with some discussion of paths toward reform that might improve the situation, including certain types of legal reform, technological improvements in the rights clearance process, educator agreement on best practices, and increased use of open access distribution.