This is the first post in a new blog series, Courses & Copyright Conundrums, to address common questions about teaching and copyright. Posts will appear on ZSR and CAT blogs. For additional support, consider attending one of the Faculty Commons pedagogy workshops

Films and other streaming media are course materials commonly screened in class and assigned for independent watching. When meeting face-to-face you (usually) can screen films for the entire class. But when you’re teaching online you (usually) can’t. So if you’re using films for your online or blended fall courses, plan for students to watch them on their own. And with the uncertainty of COVID, even if you plan to teach face-to-face it’s a good idea to plan for independent watching too, just in case.

To help you navigate the perpetually tricky streaming media landscape, here are steps for finding films, answers to common questions, and a bit about the limits the library faces for film support.

Where Do I Find Films?

You have your list of films for your course…now what? When you set out to locate films and streaming media for your course, here’s what ZSR recommends:

Step One: Check ZSR!

Before you require students to pay for access, check to see if the library offers a licensed streaming option. ZSR provides access to over 46,000 streaming media titles.* You and your students can access these films to view asynchronously, then come together to discuss them however you decide. Be sure to remind students to connect to campus servers via VPN to ensure full access. If you don’t find the film you’re looking for, we encourage you to explore our offerings and see if any of the films we do have will meet your pedagogical needs in place of your original choice.

*Feature films aren’t usually part of our streaming collection, FYI. They’re just too expensive. For feature films and shows, see Step Two…

Step Two: Look online!

Free or “Free”

Depending on the nature of the films you assign, they may be freely available on YouTube or Vimeo or elsewhere. They may also be available in more legally dubious places online; obviously don’t send your students there. But if you can find what you’re looking for on YouTube or similar, even if you’re not quite sure if the copy you’re linking to is authorized, simply linking to it – rather than downloading it – is probably fine. Just be prepared for the material to be pulled offline without notice.


If the films you need to assign are not available through ZSR or freely online, check to determine online availability. JustWatch includes multiple commercial streaming platforms, beyond the well-known Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, as well as options for one-time individual film rentals. JustWatch will also indicate free online streaming options, in case you missed them.

Step Three: Strike out?

No luck? Talk to me to discuss options.

What About Affordability?

Assigning Netflix or other commercial streaming services to students is OK and has been done by many faculty, even pre-COVID. If films are only available through a commercial streaming service and the price is reasonable (say $10 or under), assigning for independent viewing is the best option. It’s sort of like a textbook purchase: it’s a cost associated with taking the course. It is likely that many of your students will already have streaming accounts, so it won’t be an additional cost for them. And many films are available for one-time rentals at an average cost of $3. Note that many commercial streaming services do offer short free trial periods, which is helpful to share with students as some may not be able to or wish to pay for a full subscription. You may also consider giving your students the courtesy of a reminder to cancel the trial or subscription after the material is no longer needed.

ZSR often fields questions about the availability of library accounts to commercial streaming services. Unfortunately, Netflix and other streaming services only allow personal accounts. This is an ongoing source of frustration for libraries everywhere. So relying on library access isn’t possible.

What About Copyright?

If copyright allows you to view films in your physical classroom, you can stream live or post to Canvas, right? Wrong (probably). As helpful as it would be, we cannot simply put assigned films online for streaming, even behind password protection or through the library’s reserves system. It would be nice, but legally we cannot – that’s not a clear copyright exemption. Nor can you livestream for synchronous class viewing; likely not legal and generally a technical headache best to avoid. This is where films and multimedia are frustratingly different than texts.

When it comes to films, there are many copyright considerations that make our ability to rely on copyright exemptions and fair use difficult (not impossible, but difficult). One of the factors in fair use analysis is market availability and impact on the market. With films available for rental or purchase across an ever-increasing number of streaming platforms, fair use is essentially negated as there are readily-available markets open to students. Circumventing markets leans heavily against fair use and that is what we would be doing if we ripped the DVDs to stream from campus networks. And the library owning the DVDs doesn’t change that assessment.

Bottom line: don’t be afraid to assign films for your course, but also don’t be cavalier about copyright.

What About International Students?

Here’s where things are hard and sometimes there’s no good solution. Some of your international students, particularly those in China, are unable to access Netflix, YouTube, Amazon et al. It is unclear whether using the University’s VPN to connect to campus networks will circumvent blocked access, but it is better to assume it won’t. If you have international students in your course, check with them to see how many films they are able to access through sources available in their countries. If there are films they can’t access, let me know. I cannot promise we will find solutions, but we’ll do all we can. So be prepared to offer alternate materials or assignments.

Updated 6/22/20: After this post was published, a different issue for international students arose regarding bandwidth. Students are often able to stream media from YouTube and elsewhere online in lower-bandwidth SD, rather than HD, when internet connections are slow. However, for some of the library’s licensed streaming media, there is not an option for lowering the bandwidth. This is another technology challenge that you should anticipate some students encountering.

Final Thoughts

Films are among the most difficult course materials the library consults on for online classes. Simply securing streaming rights is often not possible – even outside the budgetary constraints of COVID – as costs range from $130 to $350 per film and aren’t always perpetual access licenses meaning we spend that much for just one semester or year of access and then lose streaming access. So even if you’re assigning 26 films at $3 per rental, the $78 each student pays for all films is less than what the library pays for one film – and all 26 could cost ZSR at least $3380!

Despite the trickiness with films and online courses, assigning films remains a great idea albeit with a little more legwork on your part. Questions? I’m here to help! Email me or schedule a Zoom consultation and we’ll consult.

logologo This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. It was created by Molly Keener and last updated 22 June 2020.