RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Using Streaming Services (Hulu, Netflix) in the Classroom - 4/17/2019
In a public school...What are the possible legal consequences of showing Netflix or other digital ...
Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2019 Permalink


In a public school...What are the possible legal consequences of showing Netflix or other digital streaming services like HULU from a personal account in a classroom setting.

Can teachers legally stream Netflix services from their personal account in the classroom?

The "Educational Screenings of Documentaries" section of Netflix indicates to me that those documentaries listed are the only titles that would be allowed to be shown through a personal account and that all others are for personal use only, meaning that Fair Use would not apply.

I found a Lib Guide from the James E Tobin Library:( https://molloy.libguides.com/streaming/netflix ) that explains how the personal license overrules copy right exemption. I understand what the page is saying in its entirety and like their explanation, but would appreciate having a legal perspective on this issue.

Thank you for any help you can provide!


The relationship between a person and their streaming content service is almost always[1] governed by a type of contract called a “license.”

As the members states, such a license (often accepted by clicking to accept terms left unread) can over-ride the infringement exceptions like those found in 17 U.S.C. §§107, 108, and 110.[2]

In other words, once a user voluntarily agrees to a contract restricting use of content, rights they may have once by law may become inaccessible.

Use of streaming content in the educational setting is a good example of this.  While Section 110 of the Copyright Act may allow a teacher to show a movie in class (if the movie is shown in the physical classroom and if the content is part of the curriculum), that same movie might not be accessible under the teacher’s Netflix license.

Why? Content providers change the terms of licenses all the time, but one thing is pretty constant: restricting subscription access to personal use.

Here is how Hulu puts it:

3.2 Your License. Hulu is pleased to grant you a non-exclusive limited license to use the Services, including accessing and viewing the Content on a streaming-only basis through the Video Player, for personal, non-commercial purposes as set forth in these Terms.

Netflix has a similar-sounding restriction.  Even the “Educational Screenings of Documentaries” the member references (found at https://help.netflix.com/en/node/57695) license is pretty narrow (and actually a shrewd PR move for a commercial service):

Educational screenings are permitted for any of the documentaries noted with this information, on the following terms:

The documentary may only be accessed via the Netflix service, by a Netflix account holder. We don’t sell DVDs, nor can we provide other ways for you to exhibit the film.

The screening must be non-profit and non-commercial. That means you can’t charge admission, or solicit donations, or accept advertising or commercial sponsorships in connection with the screening.

Please don’t use Netflix’s logos in any promotion for the screening, or do anything else that indicates that the screening is “official” or endorsed by Netflix.

We trust our users to respect these guidelines, which are intended to help you share and discuss our documentary content in your community.

To the extent your institution requires you to demonstrate that you have a license for your screening, please show them this page.


So there you have it: the only Netflix content that may be shown for classroom use is, as the member states, per this permission.

But (to address the other part of the member’s question) what are the consequences for not abiding by the license?  Is there a growing body of case law to show the fines, terminated accounts, and jail time[3] people are doing when they violate the terms of their streaming service license?

There is not. 

Why?  Most of these license agreements have arbitration clauses, meaning that disputes are settled without the publicly accessible process found in a court of law. 

Here is part of the arbitration clause from Netflix:

7.1. If you are a Netflix member in the United States (including its possessions and territories), you and Netflix agree that any dispute, claim or controversy arising out of or relating in any way to the Netflix service, these Terms of Use and this Arbitration Agreement, shall be determined by binding arbitration or in small claims court. … Arbitrators can award the same damages and relief that a court can award…. [4]

So there may be a number of instances where a license has been violated, and Netflix has sought “…the same damages and relief that a court can award” via arbitration.  But I don’t have access to that information.  Most of us just don’t know.[5]

I do know, however, that violating a license is wrong, and can have consequences. [6]  Further, I would hope that in the educational setting, modeling casual disregard for personal contractual obligations is not encouraged.

Teachers are usually barred by the contract from streaming Netflix services from their personal account in the classroom.  Unless there is an express license to the school from a streaming service, or for a particular film, I encourage teachers to obtain physical copies of films/DVD’s from the library, and play them in class on a good old-fashioned TV and DVD player, as Section 110 of the Copyright Act allows them to do. 

Thanks for this perceptive question.


[1] I would say “always,” but there has to be some streaming service out there with no “terms of use,” or other contractual permissions.  They might not have any desirable content, but there must be at least one.

[2] Fair use, library exemptions, and certain educational/charitable exemptions, respectively.

[3] I am mostly kidding about this last one. 

[4] Interestingly, as of this writing, Netflix is hosting “The Arbitration,” a 2016 film where: “An arbitration panel is formed after a company CEO in Nigeria is sued for wrongful dismissal and rape by an employee with whom he had an affair.”  An arbitration over unauthorized commercial use of a streaming service would likely be a tad less dramatic.

[5] And the people who probably do know are locked into confidentiality.

[6] Is a mandatory arbitration clause like this fair?  Are highly-leverage content restrictions healthy for our society?  Many would say “no” to both.  But the member’s question was not about mandatory arbitration clauses and heavy-handed content contracts.  Just wait until we get that question!


Tags: Streaming, Fair Use, Academic Libraries, Licensing

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