Posted on 2016/10/29 by

Pirates in the Classroom: The Afterlives of a Lecture Recording

Information piracy, whether in popular culture or in academia, is largely an issue of circulation. Unlike its swash-buckling and sea-faring counterpart, the OED describes this form of piracy as “the unauthorized reproduction or use of an invention or work of another, as a book, recording, computer software, intellectual property, etc., esp. as constituting an infringement of patent or copyright; plagiarism; an instance of this.” While the term has readily been used to typify software pirates and hacking collectives of the digital era, I propose to examine the misuse of a pedagogical tool as an example of information piracy; or, a case where copyright law and institutional policy conflict with academic practices.

In 2011, a leaked classroom video from the University of Missouri-Kansas City went viral and caused an uproar among US conservative media outlets when the edited footage appeared to suggest a labor studies professor advocating union violence. The wide circulation of this recording — produced and distributed by the university for registered students in the class — provoked a debate around privacy and the university’s goal of promoting shared knowledge when in response the institution proposed new policy restrictions on lecture recordings. The new policy would require students to obtain written permission from professors and classmates or face academic sanctions:

“unauthorized distribution of such materials is a violation of academic standards and may violate copyright and/or privacy rights.”

Students, professors, and other members of the academic community were swift to protest this restriction on the grounds that its vague phrasing would pose undue constraints on academic practices designed to help students learn. This controversy is emblematic of how discourses of accessibility and innovation surrounding technology in the classroom conflicts with the university’s obligation to respect copyright and data protection legislation.

This incident illustrates the way in which information piracy disputes what Adrian Johns describes as “the proper relation between media, knowledge, and the public” in “Piracy as a Business Force” (46).

While recording lectures has been practiced in academia for a variety of reasons since the advent of portable tape recorders, networked digital circulation and the widespread implementation of automated lecture capture technologies have prompted academic policy changes to formalize and regulate the practice. From boilerplate bans on personal recording to be published in syllabi to videos and guidelines educating students and faculty on legal and ethical best-practices, higher education institutions and third-party organisations are invested in regulating the production, use, and circulation of digital recordings. Among institutions which do promote both the use of lecture capturing technologies and personal recordings, two common themes emerge: that recordings are for the personal use of students registered in the course and that recordings must be destroyed after all coursework has been completed.

“Recorded materials made by students must be destroyed before the student graduates, but may be destroyed following the final assessment for the specific course.” (University of Edinburgh guidelines)

These guidelines which restrict the use of lecture recordings demonstrate an institution’s concern with respecting both intellectual property and data protection legislation. The ephemerality clause, mentioned above, serves to ensure that lecture recordings are used only for instruction. While a copyright exemption for purposes of instruction falls under “fair dealing” in Canadian copyright law, the practice carries no such stipulation. In fact, the language comes from the description of an educational exception to copyright infringement. Sections 30.01 and 30.03 of the Canadian Copyright Act stipulate a number of restrictions on the exception for “the telecommunication of lessons”: it is not an infringement of copyright “to communicate a lesson to the public by telecommunication for educational and training purposes, if that public consists only of students who are enrolled in a course of which the lesson forms a part or of other persons acting under the authority of the educational institution” but that the university must “take measures to prevent students from ‘fixing, reproducing or communicating the lesson other than as they may do under this section'” (Murray & Trosow 191-92). In their guide to Canadian copyright and fair dealing, Murray & Trosow point out that these “circular and confusing” restrictions run counter to the academic practices of professors and students: “We think that telling students they must destroy their course materials is simply not an acceptable practice; educators usually hope that students will refer back to materials from courses they have taken” (192). Under the 2012 Copyright Act and a large number of university policies, any circulation of a lecture recording beyond the community of registered students or following the end of the term in which the course was offered is a form of piracy, the unauthorized reproduction and circulation of copyrighted material.

From an article in the Times Higher Education to a Reddit forum, every single discussion of the implementation and evaluation of lecture recording in the classroom focuses on its pedagogical aspects. The availability of lecture recordings allows students to review and understand complex material, while instructors are able to facilitate a more dynamic lecture experience and generate produced-for-digital content. The effectiveness of lecture capturing technologies are measured based on the number of views and downloads, with the average student spending 10-13 minutes playing recordings. Like the academic policies which focus solely on lecture recording as a pedagogical tool, these discussions fail to consider how recordings circulate beyond the classroom.

What are the “afterlives” of lecture recordings? How are captured lectures pirated, and circulated, beyond the classroom?

  • Videos and recordings of captured lectures persist on personal hard drives and on university servers. In some cases, these recordings are made public — to be accessed and downloaded by anyone.
  • Lecture recordings are leaked to media outlets, as in this case from 2010 where a lecture recording in which a professor accused a third of the 600 students in a Strategic Management class at the University of Central Florida of cheating on exams by studying with a publisher’s bank of test questions. The circulation of pirated lectures is most visible when picked up by the media and re-circulated.
  • Lecturers and institutions post captured lectures to video streaming platforms, in the interest of accruing cultural (and economic) capital. While in the case of conferences, special events, or over-large pre-requisite courses, these videos are simulcasts. Others are made available for unlimited viewing. This is also the model used by TED talks and universities which propose massive online courses, like MIT’s OpenCourseWare program.
  • Institutions will also archive recordings of keynote speakers and guest lecturers for future re-broadcast. At UMass Amherst, when a professor in the Department of Theater passed away unexpectedly, a teaching assistant was hired to play his recorded lectures for the remaining weeks of the term.
  • Lecture recordings are referenced and shared by students and faculty on online forums like this Reddit thread and this university FAQ section or on the personal blogs of faculty members.
  • Lecture recordings are also used by faculty for job applications and by departments as an unbiased measure of teaching performance.

Each of these activities violates the terms of personal use and ephemerality under which captured lectures were produced. As these materials circulate, they shift the relationship between academia and the media as third-parties have greater access to the knowledge produced by faculty — a diffusion of cultural capital traditionally held behind economic and institutional barriers. That being said, these “pirated” course materials are not universally accessible as the language and structure of most university courses requires a modicum of disciplinary literacy. To access a wider public, lecture recordings must be edited, translated and pre-digested in formats like the TED talk, three-minute theses, and news articles. For the most part, individuals and institutions circulate captured lectures to accrue cultural capital within and beyond academic communities.

At this juncture, mechanisms of cultural capital intersect with economic capital in the circulation of “pirated” course materials: accrued economic capital enables wealthy higher education institutions to publish and circulate digital materials, which enhances their cultural capital. As in the case of uneven access to academic publishing that Balázs Bodó describes in his article on the Guerilla Open Access movement, the natural and unproblematic discourse promoting freely circulated learning materials distributed by faculty under a public good rationale assumes an institutional equality that does not exist.

While digital recordings pose particular copyright issues that aren’t found in the circulation of lecture notes — as both makers and performers of recordings have intellectual property rights — the circulation of these recordings evokes issues of academic labor: if recording lectures falls under the “work for hire” loophole in US copyright, intellectual property then belongs to the employer (the institution). In an article on the ways lecture recording transforms academic labor, Mark Hayward notes that institutional expectations surrounding the production of lecture recordings affects academic labor in the present, by shifting the relationship between the lecture hall and the media. In the future, he warns, increasingly prevalent practices of lecture recording and circulation could affect long-term hiring decisions as universities invest in technological development in lieu of staff development (1753). With less than 18.6% of PhD holders employed as full-time professors according to a 2015 report by the Conference Board of Canada, that future moment may already be here.

In discussing the “afterlives” of lecture recordings as violations of university guidelines and copyright law, I seek to challenge the progressive and moralistic pedagogical rhetoric that dominates the discourse used by institutions, advocates, and critics. Both policy and evaluations of the technology err in their assumption that lecture recordings function as a uniquely pedagogical tool. At the same time, academic policy and “fair dealing” exemptions do not accurately describe their educational use. What’s at stake when we discuss the circulation of lecture recordings is the relationship between “fair dealing” exemptions and academic practices; the relationship between a knowledge sharing economy and measures that protect privacy and information; and the relationship between media, knowledge, and the public.

Works Cited

Bodó, Balázs. “Pirates in the Library: An Inquiry into the Guerilla Open Access Movement.” New York: Social Science Research Network. SSRN-id2816925.

The Conference Board of Canada. “Inside and Outside the Academy. Valuing and Preparing PhDs for Careers.” Report. November 2015.

Hayward, Mark. “Canned Courses: Lecture Capture, Podcasting and the Transformations of Academic Labor.” Communication Studies Faculty Publications (2011): Paper 9.

Johns, Adrian. “Piracy as a Business Force.” Culture Machine 10 (2009): pp. 44-63.

Murray, Laura & Samuel Trosow. Canadian Copyright: A Citizen’s Guide. Rev. second edition. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2013.

piracy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 28 October 2016.

Wershler, Darren, Kalervo Sinervo, & Sharmon Tien. “A Network Archaeology of Unauthorized Book Scans.” Modern 2 (2013).


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