The red Netflix movie envelope has become a well-known sight, with fifteen million customers recently joining the service to receive DVDs in the mail or view films through online streaming. The convenience and simplicity of Netflix’s service has even contributed to the collapse of some of its competitors, with former market leader, Blockbuster, declaring bankruptcy last week. However, it is not only families and cash-strapped students signing up for monthly membership with Netflix. College and university libraries have begun utilizing Netflix as a way to expand their selection of films for students and professors, while also saving money. Netflix

Rebecca Fitzgerald, a librarian from Concordia College in New York, wrote a blog post this month detailing how the school’s library has used Netflix to increase its movie offerings and reduce costs. Ms. Fitzgerald recommended the use of Netflix to struggling libraries, saying, “The streaming movies have been a great success; instead of students waiting for the one DVD on reserve, they can go to the computer or into the library’s film viewing room . . . [T]he amount we save just having the instant play is significant; it’s almost like having multiple copies of the movie on reserve.” She believes the library may have saved as much as $3,000 through Netflix rentals and streaming video. Other libraries across the country have acknowledged similar use of Netflix subscriptions as well.

There’s just one problem. . . copyright allows only “personal and non-commercial use” of the movies, and Netflix does not have the option of an institutional subscription. The application of Netflix accounts in university libraries violates the company’s terms of use, although the libraries acknowledging such action have yet to be contacted by Netflix. Ciara Healy, a librarian who began a Netflix program at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina, believes her actions were legal. She argues that the library’s use falls under a “face-to-face teaching activities” exception in federal copyright law. Ms. Healy also states that “[Netflix] certainly know[s] that universities are using their service,” and notes that she openly used the school’s name to create the library’s Netflix account.

However, copyright infringement is not the only potential legal issue. When Netflix subscribers create an account with the company, they agree to its terms of use, which constitute a contract. Kevin Smith, a copyright lawyer and librarian, believes “that the risk of a contract problem makes it not worthwhile . . . It’s not a copyright issue. It’s an issue of the contract between the user and Netflix.”

When asked about the issue, Netflix’s Vice President of Corporate Communications, Steve Swasey, indicated that the company “frowns upon” such use of the service and “expect[s] that [libraries] follow the terms of agreement.” Nevertheless, it seems this expectation will not be followed by legal action. Netflix has not confronted the schools admitting such use, and Mr. Swasey emphasized that the company was not interested in “pursuing libraries.” While Netflix may be looking the other way for now, university libraries should take caution with violating the terms of their Netflix accounts, or perhaps attempt to lobby for the creation of institutional subscriptions for collegiate use.

Megan DeLockery

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One Response to Library Cards: Now Saving You $8.99/Month!

  1. Mitch Putnam says:

    Score! To the library I go…