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A Guide to Openly Accessible Media and Streaming Video Content (January 2021): The Rise of the Demand for Streaming Videos

by Susan Ariew, LeEtta Schmidt, and Matt Torrence

The Rise of the Demand for Streaming Videos

Long before the COVID-19 crisis, requests for academic libraries to purchase streaming videos ballooned. There are several reasons for the increased demand. A 2017 survey of library purchases for streaming videos indicated that 95 percent of responding libraries offered some type of streaming video content, licensing it from multiple vendors such as Films on Demand, Kanopy, Alexander Street, and Swank.[2] Videos from these providers are licensed, not owned, and access lasts one to two years. Despite the ongoing cost and the temporary status of these resources, they have many benefits, including 24-7 access; minimal maintenance (they cannot be lost, stolen, or damaged); lack of hardware requirements, e.g., DVD, Blue-Ray, or VHS players; compatibility with online learning management systems. Faculty demand has increased over the years because of the increasing popularity of online courses and of the “flipped classroom” model of teaching. 

Most people today are accustomed to obtaining streaming videos through relatively inexpensive pay-per-view services such as iTunes, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Disney+. Libraries cannot legally use these generally inexpensive home subscription services to provide access to their multiple users. There are three false conceptions about these resources, conceptions relating to cost, format, and accessibility.

Cost:“I can get whatever I want on Hulu, Netflix, and other services, so why can’t the library get this for me on streaming video?” 

The terms and conditions of Hulu, Netflix, and other home streaming subscription services prohibit libraries and educational institutions from using them for the benefit of their patrons. Libraries must instead seek out distribution companies that specifically provide institutional licenses—e.g., SWANK College Campus, Alexander Street Press, Films Media Group, and Kanopy. These subscription streaming video services are costly, and the cost for unlimited access to videos is unsustainable. For example, libraries do not pay Kanopy a flat fee for use, as the popular services for individual television viewing do. Instead there a cost for each title licensed. At this writing Kanopy charges $150 per year or $350 for a three-year license for each title. The fees add up quickly. Kanopy offers a limited-access, request-only version, and in 2019 the University of South Florida libraries (USF) took advantage of that. According to an article in its EdLib report, in 2015 the USF libraries had purchased Kanopy, through technology fee grants, for the period from September of 2015 through March 2017. The costs was roughly $90,000. In 2018, when users had become aware of the service, Kanopy costs exploded, and the USF library spent the same amount for only the first quarter of 2018. USF moved to a more restricted, mediated model requiring users to request videos with approval from the library before purchasing a time-limited license to any content. Approved requests needed to align with instruction needs and were further limited to five videos per course of 50 students or more. Non-course, unlimited use of Kanopy was discontinued.3 All of this raises the possibility that Kanopy will be completely discontinued.

Format“I’ve always used this DVD in the past; why can’t I get it on streaming video?” 

Video titles available in an older formats (VHS, DVD) cannot necessarily be purchased in streaming version or converted to streaming video using the original format. With few exceptions, copyright law licensing, digital rights management (DRM), and restrictive technology prohibit conversion of old formats to streaming video formats.4 Moreover, even if converting VHS or DVD videos into streaming formats can be done legally, doing so requires additional staff, equipment, and server support, all of which are costly. A few libraries have converted old videos into new formats for the sake of preservation, but these are most often library-created and library-owned videos, not commercial products. A 2017 study published in Copyright & New Media Law showed that roughly 40 percent of content created in VHS format has not been shifted to another medium, which means a considerable amount of material is not being preserved and will be lost forever. 5,6.

Accessibility“The library down the road has this streaming video. Why can’t I borrow it through interlibrary loan?” 

Copyright and licensing enter the picture when it comes to interlibrary loan. For years, librarians have been struggling with interlibrary lending of eresources because many ebooks and their platforms have restrictive licensing and digital rights management (DRM). These barriers have created an environment in which ebooks are more difficult to share than physical books. Enter streaming video. Since libraries license access to, rather than own, streaming videos, libraries are often prohibited from sharing, storing, or preserving content the way they would physical materials. Accordingly, libraries may choose not to acquire streaming media at all.