CopyrightX and this librarian

I just completed the CopyrightX course and that means it’s time for me to write up my thoughts about it, and specifically whether I recommend it to other librarians.

Short version: If you’re deeply interested in learning more about the foundations of copyright (both theories and key cases and decisions), and are willing to invest the kind of time and mental energy you’d expect of a law school class, I highly recommend considering it.

If you’re not sure about it, or are only interested in specific parts, the lectures (with transcripts) and readings and supporting material are available for free online, and they’re great. The part you get by being accepted to the course are the sectional discussions and ability to take the exam (and get a certificate).

Many more details follow.

What is CopyrightX?

CopyrightX is a online course offered through, as they say, through “Harvard Law School, the HarvardX distance-learning initiative, and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society“. They’ve been running the online version since 2013, with various minor changes to format and structure each year.

It is taught by Professor William Fisher, and the teaching fellows are current or former Harvard Law students or graduate students. Most of the material is focused on United States law (for what are probably obvious reasons: the affiliate classes may vary this) but there are regular references to and comparisons to other copyright law systems (see the exam section.)

The online course is by application only, and they accept about 500 people a year into the Harvard-run online sections, divided into groups of 20-25 people in a section in a couple of different time groups. There are also affiliated sections run by various organisations outside the United States, taught by experts in copyright law.

The course is free for admitted applicants (funding for the teaching fellows is provided by Harvard and some law firms who help support the project.) If you pass the final exam and meet the attendance requirements, you get a certificate, but there’s no credit earned, etc.

It runs alongside an in-person class at Harvard Law. Students in that class watch the same video lectures as the online students, but have additional discussion of case studies and readings in the classroom (160 minutes compared to the 90 minute online sections.) They have some additional readings, too.

My experience, as described below, is with the online course.

Online section, what’s involved:

There are twelve weeks of class sessions. (With a week off in the middle for Harvard’s spring break.)

The lectures run about 90 minutes a week, in YouTube and a few other formats, three lectures per week (but often of uneven lengths: it was pretty common to have one 40-45 minute lecture, and the other two be 15-20 minutes each).

It usually took me between 3-4 hours to watch the lectures while taking notes.

The readings vary, but usually involve reading 3-4 cases, which vary in length (and density).  How long they take to read will vary a lot depending on your comfort with reading judicial decisions.

Sectionals were done via Adobe Connect software with a group of 20-25 other people, with presentation slides displayed, and discussion about them. They run 90 minutes (allow a few minutes on the front end to log in, test equipment, etc.)

Final exam: Online open-book (and notes). The exam opened for this session on 9am ET on Thursday, April 27, and closed at 9am ET on Monday, May 1 (so 96 hours total.) It apparently takes most people less than 8 hours, and took me about 7. More on that in the exam section.

Notes: Over the course of the class, I found the best uses of my time were taking notes (but more ‘where can I find this thing later’) on lectures and sections, and reading the readings in as much detail as I needed to understand what was going on.

I spent 6-8 hours a week on course material (including the section time), plus another 3-4 going “Argh, I need to watch part of a lecture tonight” and working my way around to that after some complicated work days. I found I really needed to do at least one section of the lecture on the weekends or it got overwhelming.

My background:

I could quote from my application essay, but that makes this post even longer, so let me sum up.

I’m a librarian. I regularly hang out (virtually and not) with a bunch of authors, creators, musicians, and other content creators. I’ve been responsible for both documenting Digital Millenium Copyright Act policies (for one job) and handling requests as a representative of a major online site (as a member of the LiveJournal Terms of Service team in the early 2000s). I’ve also got a particular interest in the copyright implications for transformative works (including fanfiction, vidding, etc.) and questions about things like how to handle orphan works.

In my current job, I deal with a number of requests from international users, and I’m also obviously professionally very interested in accessibility related copyright laws and treaties (such as Marrakesh). And in other jobs as a librarian, I’ve helped students and teachers figure out fair use, copyright law as applying to specific projects, and how to walk the line between risk and benefit of uses.

In other words, I came into this with a fairly large amount of copyright knowledge, but I’m not a lawyer, and much of my information is self-taught (if from reputable sources, because I’m a librarian.)

My impression going into this class was that I had a fairly solid background in what the mechanics were, which turned out to be fairly accurate, and I was less sure about how well grounded my understanding of key cases and theories were. (Which turned out to be ‘there weren’t a lot of surprises there either, but I now feel a lot more able to articulate what I know and understand to other people, and have a lot more examples to choose from.’)

It’s also worth mentioning for your calibration, that I both read and write very quickly, compared to most people, but I find taking in information via video to be one of my least favourite learning modes. (I’m actually better with pure audio and being able to listen and focus on the notes I’m taking or doing something else with my hands like knitting or doodling. But with this, I had to be able to look at examples and take notes.)

This is the first formally structured course I’ve taken since I finished my MLIS (10 years ago this summer, wow!) though I’ve done a lot of less formal learning during that time. It took me a while to figure out how to fit coursework alongside my job, especially since my job has periodic rounds of very complex research questions popping up without advance notice, which made watching a lecture and notetaking a lot more challenging. (When I was doing my library degree, I was working as a library assistant, and the intellectual and focus demands of what I was doing were mostly fairly predictable.)

Application process:

The application process is well designed: there’s an online form that opens in about October, and you can submit an application through sometime in the beginning of December. About a week after applications closed, I got my acceptance (a bit ahead of when they said it would be, actually.) You can sign up for an email announcement list that will let you know when applications open.

The application asks for (at least it asked me for…)

  • Name
  • 2000-3300 character essay: “Why do you want to take CopyrightX”
  • A series of brief ‘pick the correct word’ English language skills questions.
  • A question about which timeslots I would be available.
  • A few technical questions about microphone access, internet speeds, etc. with instructions on how to get the information.
  • Some demographic information (profession, if I’ve taken other law courses, as well as the more common country / gender / age range /educational level)

You get a copy of your application, and the technical side of all the forms and routine communications worked very smoothly for me, incidentally.

They clearly did their best to balance the sections across a range of backgrounds (both countries and professions). More on that in my section information.

Lecture, readings, map:

As mentioned above, the lectures are available in several video formats, but the easiest is probably YouTube for most people reading this.

They are captioned (by humans) and there are transcripts available, though I had to do a little rummaging through the supporting course material to find them.

The videos are mostly Professor Fisher talking to the camera against a black background, but there are sometimes visual or audio examples. These are well chosen, and very helpful in explaining some of the distinctions of case law when they’re used.

The videos were recorded at different times, and about a third of them have been updated since the original recording because there’s new relevant case law or other important changes.

Visual examples are often briefly described in the video, but the lecture may be confusing in some cases if you aren’t looking at the video or have visual impairments (Yes, I made a note of this on my survey.) In lectures with multiple slides with graphs or other outline content,  the slides were often given as a separate document  so you could examine them more closely.

The readings are all linked from the syllabus, come in several formats, and are mostly relevant judicial decisions, but there’s also a chapter from one of Professor Fisher’s books, and actual statutes, and so on, when relevant. There’s also some background material about things like how to read judicial decisions if you’re not familiar with them.

The maps are a series of mindmaps with additional information (further cases we didn’t discuss, details, pieces we didn’t do much with.) I mostly used the Markdown versions. I suspect I’d have found the visual maps more useful if I were either more used to law school courses or if I knew I’d have to retain the information for a closed book exam (where my notetaking style would have been different.)

There’s also at least one guest speaker during the semester. You can watch this live if your technology and timing allows, or later. (And you can also watch the guest speakers from previous years.)


I found the sectionals mostly amazingly helpful (and worth the process of applying for and doing the class in a structured setting) with two bits I found more frustrating.


My sectional met at 2pm ET on Thursday afternoons: I got permission from my boss for it to be work time, and arranged with the library assistant (who is also our archives assistant) to be around in case we got someone coming in with questions. You need to attend 10 of the 12 to be able to take the exam. Sections are 90 minutes, so we ended at 3:30.

(I had a couple of brief interruptions, and one time I was late due to a meeting that got rescheduled on me, but mostly this worked smoothly. However, we don’t get a lot of in-person traffic in my library: most of our contacts are email and phone. This wasn’t a problem on the sectional side.)


The sectionals usually involved a brief review of the core concepts for the lecture, and then anywhere from two to five case studies. These are the part of the course that is not shared in public, and if you miss the sectional, you entirely miss this content, there’s no way to make it up. (You can only attend the sessions for your section.)

I really found the case studies helpful and a lot of them were just plain fun. Our first sectional discussed the cake at the Trump inauguration (this had some of the best comparative photos and commentary I found when telling people about the details) and CakeWrecks, for example, since the first had happened the previous week when we started.

Several times, we had case studies about things that had just come up in decisions or the news, which was also both really interesting and really helpful. Case studies were, I gather, prepared by the teaching fellows and shared, and discussed in advance at their weekly teaching fellows meeting.

Examples of cases we were discussing as they happened included the Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc. case, the “Charging Bull” and “Fearless Girl” sculptures, and the Mavrix Photographs, LLC v. LiveJournal, Inc. case.

I got the impression, but might be wrong, that most of the time teaching fellows could decide which case studies to cover, with occasional “No, cover this one, it’s highly relevant for the final” instructions, and certainly that they had discretion about how much time to spend on each piece or what to highlight.

It was also really helpful to hear thoughts from other people in the section, who sometimes had very different takes on a specific part of a case study, or could share specifics of how that worked in their field, or their country, or some other aspect I wouldn’t otherwise have heard easily.

The two parts I found frustrating were initial attempts at breakout discussions (clunky, and our teaching fellow gave it up after two tries, so yay her), and the inevitable technical weirdnesses. In my sectional, we used the group chat box for replies about as much as audio, which was sometimes difficult to hear (people would sound like they were very far away). Our teaching fellow’s mic was usually great.


Our section leader was a third year law student at Harvard, who already had some extensive experience in the field, and who had a particular interest in copyright as it applies to art.

I did a brief tally of people in my section when we did introductions the first day. Out of the 17 people I had notes for, we had

  • 7 people from Europe
  • 2 people each from the United States, Africa, India, and Russia
  • 1 person each from Canada and South America.

In terms of backgrounds, they included:

  • 9 lawyers (only two had a practice focusing on intellectual property, and they were both outside the US) and 4 law students from other schools.
  • 2 people working in technology, 1 in communications and IT.
  • 1 in business.
  • 1 film producer (also in law school)
  • 1 librarian (me)

The people in my section were generally articulate and thoughtful, and had useful things to say a lot of the time, given the limitations of the format. I didn’t feel like any one person dominated the conversation in bad ways, and our teaching fellow was good about distributing who got asked to speak when that was relevant. We didn’t have much general conversation between people in the section, much more specifically focused on the topic.


The exam is open book, open notes, and you have 96 hours to take it (PDF of exam). The dates and times are announced at the beginning of the course. In previous years, it’s been 3 questions, but this year, it was 4, each with a word limit. Here’s information about the exam and the exam itself, and here’s the Harvard Law class exam for comparison (they have an in-class closed book portion, and then an online portion with similar questions to the online exam.)

I took the Friday off work, so I’d have time to spread out working on it, and I’m very glad I did that. I answered question 1 on Friday, questions 3 and 4 on Saturday, and question 2 on Sunday, along with reviewing and editing along the way. Each question had a limit of 1200 words.

This year, the questions were:

  1. Example case where a friend has asked you for advice about a particular issue.
  2. Example case where you are advising a museum curator.
  3. Comparing copyright approaches about one of a short list of topics to copyright in another country or region.
  4. Looking at one of a short list of topics through the lens of a particular approach to copyright theory (you could pick which of the four theories we discussed.)

Personally, question 1 and 2 both took me about 2 hours to answer each, and questions 3 and 4 both took me about an hour each (plus some additional editing and review time.)

We had a bit of specific discussion in section about how to prepare for the exam and what to expect. For example, we did not need to worry about formal case citations, we could just used one or two of the parties involved, and we were instructed multiple times not to do additional research about cases.

(In one of my answers, I brought up additional examples of cultural issues from my own background knowledge, but didn’t do extensive research other than a quick Google to double check preferred terminology.)

Exams are graded by a different teaching fellow than the one you’ve had your section with, and exams on the borderline of passing are reviewed by Professor Fisher, so that’s a fairly standard academia approach. We find out how we did by sometime in mid-June. (Right now, I feel like I did reasonably well, and should pass comfortably.)

How I did: We’ve now (June 12, 2017) gotten our exam grades, and I got a 3.75 (3 is “good” and 4 is “insightful” which put me somewhere around the top 20-25% of the 345 people who took the exam. I’m very pleased with this, given that I’m not a lawyer, and that I was committed to spending time on this but didn’t want it to take over my life.


Of course, one of the things I was thinking about while taking this course was accessibility. While a lot of attention was given to providing multiple formats (both for different preferences of access, and for access by people in places where internet connections are not robust) there are some possible challenges for people with visual or hearing impairments (I made note of these in the post-course survey, too.)

The course does provide an accessibility page with contact information and some additional details.

For people with visual impairments:
While most of the material could be accessed in multiple formats (so that people could avoid badly formatted PDFs, which are often inaccessible or very annoying for people who use screenreaders), there were times when the visual examples on the screen were not fully explained in the lecture, and additional description would be helpful. (The exceptions were cases that came up in the middle of the course.)

In addition, visual examples in the case studies during sectional would obviously also potentially be confusing, especially for situations that came up during the course of the class. My section leader was pretty good about describing it in some detail to be able to talk about specific issues, but there were definitely times it would have been confusing to someone who couldn’t view the image.

For people with hearing impairments:
The captioning was great on the lectures, and the transcripts were also very helpful (there were a few missing, again, noted in my course feedback). Obviously, however, the section discussion would be impossible to follow if you were hearing impaired or read lips, since the speakers are not visible on screen.

This is an area where individual accommodation (such as real-time transcription) would be necessary but would obviously be an access issue for someone taking this course outside of work (or outside of times where CART or interpreter access is readily available.) I’m not sure there’s a great solution to this on the course provider end given the structure of how the course is offered.

Cognitive or focus impairments:
Obviously, a law class is going to involve a fairly high level of intellectual activity and focus. The lectures are specifically designed to have the degree of detail and information that students in the Harvard Law class need, while being reasonably accessible to non-lawyers or law students from a wide range of backgrounds.

Some of the other accessibility tools, like transcripts, are very helpful here, because they made it much easier when I had to go look up a word and understand how it was used in the legal context, or wanted to read a more general summary of a case before diving back into the actual decision.

I found the length of the sectional (90 minutes) to be about the limit of my ability to focus that intensely especially with mostly audio information and while taking notes. There were several sections where a 5 minute break part way through would have been helpful for me. (You can take a quick one yourself by putting down your headset, but you’ll miss some content.)

Should you consider it?

It’s a significant time and mental commitment, so take my comments with that in mind.

For librarians, it is probably of most use to people who already have some background in (or at least interest in) copyright and intellectual property issues, but who are interested in the context, background, and theory aspects at least as much as “how do I handle this particular issue in practice.”

Much of the course content will help with developing higher level policies and approaches, but is not as helpful for “Is it okay to tell someone they can use our copy machine to do X?” or “This person keeps making ILL requests for recent articles from Y journal we don’t have a subscription for.”

However, if you want that deeper knowledge, or you’re looking at being able to advocate for particular policies, educational offerings, or approaches in your library or community, there’s a lot of great material here.

Feel free to check with me for questions!

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

More about my job and a day in the life

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