Professor William Fisher’s edX “CopyrightX” MOOC

by Lee Gesmer on May 9, 2013

Professor William Fisher's edX "CopyrightX" MOOC

Let me begin with the bottom line: this was a excellent course. If Professor Fisher offered another course (such as trademark or Internet law, two areas identified on his online bio), I would not hesitate to take it or audit it.


edX is a collaboration formed by Harvard and MIT to produce “Massive Online Open Courses,” or “MOOCs.”  (I will use the phrase “online courses” as well as “MOOC”). edX is something of a latecomer to the still-new world of MOOCs. The leaders to date (with the most courses), are Coursera and Udacity. However, there are many “smaller” and legacy offerings. (See 750 1150 Free Online Courses From Top Universities). My impression is that until edX, Coursera and Udacity arrived, most online courses were nothing more than hit-or-miss video recordings of classroom lectures. They were not produced with an online audience in mind, and often suffered from poor production quality. Listening to the professor discuss homework assignments, papers, exams, office hours and teaching assistants–none of which are relevant to viewing the lectures online–was frustrating.

Until recently online courses tended to focus on the hard sciences, and I hadn’t come across any legal courses. This changed when, late last year, I received an edX email notice for “HLS1x Copyright.” Or, as it came to be known, “CopyrightX.” Here are some excerpts from the course description I received:

HLS1x Copyright, an experimental course offered on edX, explores in depth the law, theory, and practice of copyright. Approximately two thirds of the course focus on the copyright system of the United States; the remainder is devoted to the laws pertaining to copyright and “neighboring rights” in other countries. Considerable attention is devoted to the relationship between copyright law and creative expression in a variety of fields: literature; music; film; photography; graphic art; software; comedy; fashion; and architecture. The course commences on January 28, 2013, and lasts for 12 weeks. . . .

Applicants [must be] willing to devote eight hours per week to learning and discussing the material.

Several methods of instruction are used. Participants watch pre-recorded lectures, engage in interactive live webcasts of events in which guest speakers address especially controversial issues, discuss legal problems in online forums, and (most importantly) participate once a week in an 80-minute online seminar. Those seminars are taught by teaching fellows, all of whom are currently students at Harvard Law School.

At the conclusion of the course, each participant takes a three-hour exam, designed to assess his or her knowledge of copyright law and policy. Those exams are graded by the teaching fellows. Participants who receive passing grades are to be awarded certificates of completion and provided written assessments of their degree of proficiency.


William Fisher III

Professor Fisher received his undergraduate degree (in American Studies) from Amherst College and his graduate degrees (J.D. and Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization) from Harvard University. Between 1982 and 1984, he served as a law clerk to Judge Harry T. Edwards of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and then to Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court. Since 1984, he has taught at Harvard Law School, where he is currently the Wilmer Hale Professor of Intellectual Property Law and the Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

What a great opportunity! When I was in law school there was no course on copyright law. I could make up for that omission now.

I realized that by limiting the enrollment to 500 students, requiring participation in online seminars (which, due to the anticipated world-wide student body would take place at times quite inconvenient for people in U.S. Eastern Standard Time), asking people to take a three-hour exam and awarding passing students a certificate of completion, this MOOC was making a serious effort to set itself apart. Most MOOCs have no enrollment limits (tens of thousands of people register), so limiting the course to 500 students alone sent a message that this course would be different.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to find out just how different the course would be. The application was concise, and included  demographic information and a short essay on why the applicant wanted to take the course and could contribute. I applied, but was not selected.  I didn’t take it personally, since it’s likely that the applicants numbered in the tens of thousands.

Still curious, I resolved to “audit” the course using the lectures that were posted on Youtube. I didn’t participate in the weekly online seminars, nor did I take the three-hour exam or earn a “certificate of completion.” I watched the pre-recorded lectures and read some (but by no means all) of the associated reading materials, which were extensive. I watched two of the six “Special Events” in full, and parts of the remaining four events.  And, I didn’t view the lectures or the Special Events in sync with the class—I watched them in  late March and April.

The list of lectures, with links to the videos on Youtube, is here. The list of reading materials here. And, the list of Special Events (with links to Youtube), here.

Observations on the Course

Other than CLEs, the last time I sat in a classroom and listened to academic lectures was 1979 – my last year of law school. And, frankly, I’m not sure there were many academic lectures in law school similar to what Professor Fisher presented in this course. So, it took me some effort to adjust to the format of this course. As I discuss below, this was not education disguised as entertainment to make it easier to digest—this was education served “neat.”

First, and perhaps most importantly, since I was just auditing the videos I had no interaction with other students. That made it more difficult, since I had no external motivation to watch each lecture. I’ve heard it said that the best motivator to showing up at the gym at 7:00 a.m. is knowing your workout partner will be expecting you. However, I had no external pressure to keep up with the course.

Motivation to complete an online course is not a trivial concern. At  this early stage in the evolution of online courses the drop out rate is extremely high—as high as 90% in many courses. The high non-completion rate may be due to the curiosity factor—people are registering for these courses just to see what a “MOOC” is all about, but with no intention of taking the full course—or it may be a question of self-motivation. I haven’t seen any statistics on what percentage of the 500 students enrolled in CopyrightX took the final exam, or what percentage passed the course. It would be interesting to see if the use of a selection process and online seminars led to a high completion rate.

The best motivator for CopyrightX was probably the knowledge that you are 1 of 500 people selected for the course and are expected to participate in the online forums and take the final exam. I wasn’t able to kibitz with other students, exchange ideas or ask questions. And, I have no way of knowing how much value that would have added to the course.

I confess that when I first began watching the lectures I found them a bit tedious. The lectures are comprised primarily of an upper-body shot of Professor Fisher in a dark sports coat that blends into a black background. He is often looking off-camera, presumably at an outline of the lecture. In other words, this was a visually non-stimulating format. The course was given in tandem to Harvard Law School students, but this was not a course where you saw the professor walking around in the front of a lecture hall and could see that students were present. So far as I could tell, the online course videos were shot in a studio specifically for the MOOC. Whether the law students taking the course for credit had live lectures, or were expected to watch the online lectures independent of the online lectures, I don’t know. However, I do know that you would be hard-pressed to find a less visually stimulating form of presentation:

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 12.40.37 PM

Professor Fisher, CopyrightX, Harvard Law School


Prof. Michael Sandel, Justice, Harvard

After a while I adjusted to this format. Professor Fisher is a serious scholar, and he was not there to put on a teaching show (see Michael Sandel, image right), perform classroom tricks (see Walter Lewis, image right), or make any effort to entertain in order to hold the interest of the students. This was hard core, Harvard Law-style lecturing, nothing more, nothing less. No jokes, no anecdotes, not even much movement; just a fire-hose of concentrated information presented in a narrow dynamic range.

Unlike MOOCs such as those on Coursera, there was no attempt to break up the videos into small segments and intersperse quizzes to maintain the viewer’s attention. For example, Coursera explains its pedagogy as follows:

A key factor in the design of the Coursera system is the extensive use of interactive exercises, which we believe are critical for student engagement and learning. Even within our videos, there are multiple opportunities for interactions: the video frequently stops, and students are asked to answer a simple question to test whether they are tracking the material. This strategy has value not only in maintaining student focus and engagement. Research shows that even simple retrieval questions have significant pedagogical value.


Prof. Walter Lewis, Physics, MIT

I had started a couple of Coursera MOOCs out of curiosity, just to see how Coursera implemented this teaching style. It was interesting to see that edX was not, at least in this course, using Coursera’s pedagogical approach to online learning.Professor Fisher’s CopyrightX videos had no “interactive exercises” and no “retrieval questions.” It had no cute sketches, like Udacity sometimes has (image lower right). Whether this will be true for all edX courses I don’t know, but it was for this one. I adjusted to the style of the course and this didn’t bother me, but I can imagine that some people might have difficulty with this approach.

I also wondered, as I progressed through the course, whether the course would be accessible to someone who was not a lawyer or a second or third year law student. The course was presented as a law school course for students at Harvard Law School, not an introductory course on copyright law for non-lawyers. The course made frequent reference to complex statutes, treaties, cases and law review/journal articles, many of which were made available on the reading list. The online lectures made no accommodations for non-lawyers. I question what someone who had no previous legal education would have made of this massive amount of sophisticated legal material.

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 12.12.35 PM


As far as the substance of the course goes, it was quite broad. A full list of topics covered is provided in the schedule of lectures. After beginning with international copyright treaties (not the best topic to launch the course with, in my opinion, given how complex and arcane this topic is), Professor Fisher moves through a wide range of topics, including each of the exclusive rights granted by statute, the idea-expression dichotomy, copyright formalities, authorship, fair use and remedies. In fact, there are few topics he doesn’t at least touch upon.

The course often departs from an exposition of “black letter” law to address the philosophical and historical origins of copyright law, the economic rationale for various aspects of the law (or lack thereof) and Professor Fisher’s own views on copyright policy. Professor Fisher also contrasted U.S. copyright laws with the copyright laws and policies of other countries, with most of the focus on the EU. In other words, the course aspired (and I think succeeded) in questioning how aspects of copyright law have evolved to where they are today, and how the law could be improved. Professor Fisher appears to have strongly held beliefs in that regard, which he presented in his cerebral, mild-mannered style.

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 7.28.48 AM

Slide from CopyrightX re Copyright Terms

One thing the course made clear is that copyright law is a vast topic. Professor Fisher acknowledges this often, cutting off topics at a certain point and suggesting that students read statutes, cases or articles cited in his Copyright Map (discussed below) for more detail or greater understanding. One gains an understanding, as the course progresses, for just how complex copyright law is, particularly when the Internet (which knows no borders) is layered on top of a world-wide system of copyright laws that is highly parochial. (See, for example, Pandora CEO: The Complexity Of International Copyright Law Is A Big Problem; and Want To Get A Sense Of Just How Complex And Confusing Copyright Law Really Is? by Mike Masnick). His discussion of copyright duration and termination rights was a valiant attempt to bring clarity to one of the most confusing areas of the law (see one of his many slides on this topic, left).

Each weekly topic in the course consisted of between three and six videos, ranging in length from 15 minutes to 50 minutes each. I would estimate the weekly videos ran, on average, between one and one-and-one-half hours. Professor Fisher has created an outline that he calls Maps of Intellectual Property using MindJet. When you download a pdf file created with MindJet from his site the file has a built-in “MindJet Player” that allows you to view an expandable outline, or “map.” Here is the top level of the Copyright Map, which he used extensively during his lectures:

screen shot

Top-Most Level of Prof. Fisher’s Copyright Map

Each of the six peripheral boxes on the map is the top level of a large outline containing many sub-topics (along with statutory, case and journal citations). As long as there is a “+” symbol beside a topic, clicking the “+” will lead to more content. For example, here is part of the outline that expands out of the major topic heading, “What Is Protected”:

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 11.56.59 AM

Copyright Map, Expanded

I haven’t explored this outline in full, but from what Professor Fisher demonstrated it seems that it is very large, and includes many subsections that he didn’t have time to go into in the course. It also appears that he updates it often.

Professor Fisher also used traditional powerpoint screens, such as this example, discussing the Grokster decision:

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 9.48.36 AM

And, he used more elaborate color graphics such as this one, which illustrates the overlapping principles of fair use:

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 9.11.56 AM

I soon realized that I couldn’t watch these lectures like one would watch a TED Talk.  This was nothing like sitting in a law school classroom, where lectures are broken up by student questions and discussions, or the socratic dialog method of teaching. Apart from the Special Events (which did not seem intended to closely follow the lecture topics), this was just a straight lecture format.

While I assumed that I knew enough about copyright law that this would be nothing more than a refresher course, that proved to be anything but the case; there was a lot of information that was either new to me, or presented in a manner that required me to rethink my understanding of the topic. I realized that I had to fall back on something I haven’t done in a classroom for 34 years – taking notes. I created a new Evernote file for each lecture topic, and took notes on the lectures. I think that helped me retain far more than I would have had I simply watched the lectures, but it slowed down the time it took to watch a video lecture.

There were also one or two times when I thought Professor Fisher may have given the wrong impression of how the courts treat a particular copyright law doctrine, but of course I had no one with whom I could discuss this, and no means of raising the point with Professor Fisher.*

*[note] Professor Fisher may have mispoken when he stated that Stevie Ray Vaughn was “one of the few guitarists better than Hendrix himself.” (Lecture 3-3 at 10:12). 

I found the six Special Events—all of which focused on guest speakers—the weakest part of the course. Ironically, unlike the studio-produced video lectures, these were classroom events, and you could see that the students enrolled in the course were present. In his introductions of the guest speakers Professor Fisher addressed both the online and classroom students, and the speakers answered questions from both audiences.

Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig gave what appeared to me to be his standard “remix” copyright presentation, which has been published on the web many times before. His presentations (which make extensive use of his “patented” “Presentation Zen” slide style) are excellent, but he didn’t add much (if anything) to his stock deck.

The Special Event I found most interesting featured Robert Darnton and John Palfry discussing the Digital Public Library of of America, which went “live” in April.  The legal challenges the DPLA faces are significant, and they are discussed frankly during the presentation and discussion at this event.

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, was a no-show for this event, which was disappointing. By archiving vast swathes of the Internet from 1996 to present Kahle has been center-stage at the creation of the largest repository of online Internet resources available to the public. It would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on the copyright challenges faced by the Internet Archive, the Google Books project, and now the Digital Public Library of America.

I watched parts of each of the remaining four Special Events, but they didn’t hold my attention, which is not to say they may not have been the most interesting part of the course for some of the students.


As I said at the opening of this post, this was an excellent course for people interested in a scholarly, detailed review of copyright law. I have been unable to find any comparable elucidation of copyright law on the Internet, and I suspect there are only a handful of copyright practitioners in the U.S. that could pull off the tour de force that Professor Fisher does in this course. There is room, in the emerging world of MOOCs, for courses presented in this style, as well as courses in the more relaxed style of Coursera and Udacity. I hope that Professor Fisher and edX decide to create similar programs for trademark and Internet law.

[Note: As Professor Fisher would make sure you knew if you watched the CopyrightX course, the CopyrightX online videos are protected by U.S. copyright law. The online lectures for CopyrightX are subject to the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike 2.5 License. The screenshots I’ve used from the lectures are subject to this license.]

[Update July 18, 2013]: Here are some additional online reviews of Copyright X:

Here a link to a post at the Berkman Center providing statistics on graduation and exam passage rates.  193 of 500 students enrolled (38.6%) earned graduation certificates. Not surprisingly (this was a tough course), the highest completion and exam passage rates were students who already had a J.D. degree.

[Update December 18, 2013]: Prof. Fisher’s updated evaluation of the 2013 course, and plans for the 2014 version (retrieved 12-17-13)


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