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Maxed Out in Class

posted by Bob Lawless

Many Credit Slips readers will be familiar with James Scurlock's documentary, Maxed Out. If you're not familiar with it, you should be. It's a look at the consumer credit industry and is especially effective in conveying what happens to the individuals who are the victims of aggressive lending practices. You can get it  on DVD. (We really need to get one of those Amazon.com click-through agreements so we can get our 5 cents when somebody clicks through to buy it.) If you're a Netflix customer, you can watch it as part of their "Watch It Now" service (or do it the old-fashioned way and order the DVD).

As I'm putting together my syllabus for my Bankruptcy class this fall, I was considering whether to have a screening of the movie for the first day of class or otherwise requiring the students to see it. In the law school classroom, we'll spend a lot of time on the rules, but it is easy to forget that these rules have real consequences for real people. The movie would provide powerful context to the stories we will see in our casebook. We'll talk, for example, about the anti-modification provisions of chapter 13, a seemingly bland topic that really can be about whether someone keeps their house.

On the other hand, this particular movie has a strong point of view. Although it is a point of view with which I am in general agreement, not everyone shares it. On balance, I'm inclined not to require viewing the movie as part of the class but perhaps to have an optional screening for interested students. (And, if you happen to be one of my students, it won't be on the final exam.) What do others think? Does this movie have place in the classroom, law school or otherwise?


Maxed Out will be a required part of my Consumer Law course this fall. I think the movie is particularly relevant for Consumer Law, maybe moreso even than bankruptcy. (I probably won't show it in bankruptcy). The movie has a strong point of view, but so does nearly all the material that we use in a law school course (Discover Bank v. Owens, for example). By the way, if others are interested in showing Maxed Out, I can share that the folks at Swank, the licensing company, were very helpful with copyright compliance.

The other film that I have sometimes asked my Consumer Law students to watch is the Frontline show called The Secret History of the Credit Card. It has a point of view too, but features interviews with the American Bankers Association lobbyist and the credit card executive who developed the teaser rate. The historical focus to the story offers an interesting retelling of the consequences of the Marquette decision.

Katie is right, show both the Frontline and Maxed Out. Both have show real people in real trouble and will factor some of the abstractness out of the creditcos arguments.

Strong POV? Show the ugly side of credit and let your class know you're open to debating on the facts of the film...

The Frontline doc is available online here http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/credit/

There's some great additional resources available on the same site.

I'm a huge fan of CreditSlips - keep on keepin' on.

I wouldn't presume to tell anyone how to teach his or her class absent explicit request, but since you asked... as someone who hires law students, I don't think it reflects optimally on an academic institution to provide a movie as a means of instruction for adults seeking a professional degree. I think one can assume that twentysomethings already know how to absorb information from movies. I recognize I may seem old fashioned and even entirely out of fashion in this respect, but I will tell you my own teenage children make fun of classes when they are shown politically slanted movies. They seem to me to feel the method of delivery implicitly demeans their intellect and they definitely become more likely to subscribe to the opposing argument because of that.

Katie, it would seem to me that use of videos in a face-to-face classroom setting would be exempt from copyright infringement under section 110(1) of the U.S. Copyright Act. It reads, "[T]he following are not infringements of copyright . . . (1) performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction, unless, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, the performance, or the display of individual images, is given by means of a copy that was not lawfully made under this title, and that the person responsible for the performance knew or had reason to believe was not lawfully made . . . ."

It would be different if the movie was shown as part of "film night" at the law school or some other social occasion, but if we're using it in the classroom as part of class, I thought this section obviated the need to get copyright clearance.

Yes, Bob. When I said they were "helpful with copyright compliance" what I meant was that they told me that I qualified under the face-to-face teaching exception and did not need a license. After so many dealings with Institutional Review Boards, I felt the need to let Swank decide that I was not infringing, rather than read the Copyright Act for myself!

Hi everyone. Katie Porter alerted me to your conversation here, and I wanted to add that Americans for Fairness in Lending is partnering with Maxed Out to support screenings - see our website at http://www.affil.org/get_active/maxed_out.php. If you end up screening the film, please get in touch so we can help!

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