Kanopy, explained


James Knowles

Free streaming is already good streaming, but Kanopy goes above and beyond. Photo courtesy of Kanopy.

The landscape of video streaming is changing, arguably for the worse. Where once there was just Netflix as a convenient alternative to cable television, there are now far too many competitors each seeking a piece of the profitable pie, whittling down the content of any one platform so that having access to both “Stranger Things” and “Euphoria” costs $19 every month at the bare minimum. Most of us are financially limited to one or two streaming services. However, university students have access to one more, though they might have never heard of it — Kanopy.

Guided by the motto and descriptor “thoughtful entertainment,” Kanopy offers a relatively wide selection of movies, spanning many different genres. While all of the movies share a certain sensibility, they’re certainly not limited to one type of content. There’s a particular focus on independent and international cinema, as well as genuine and comprehensive diversity. Movies like the irreverent New Zealand vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” sit alongside Oscar-winning “Moonlight” and various international art house gems — adventurous viewers may even find themselves glued to films from as far back as the Silent Era of cinema.

For as much important fiction as Kanopy has to offer, it is very much an educational platform. The streaming service has almost 100 more documentary titles than feature films, all while continuing the nature of programming evident in the entertainment section. Documentaries can be found within many sections — the journalistic zeal of “Politics & Current Affairs” and the it’s-in-the-name education of “Science, Nature & Technology” on one end, and the fearless, steadfast documentation of “LGBTQ Stories,” “Women & Society” and “Ethnicity & Identity” on the other.

The number of titles available to UNO students through Kanopy is no competition for the massive amount of content offered by streaming giants like Netflix or HBO Max, nor should it be. Instead, one should view Kanopy as a careful curation, and a peer of Film Streams and Dundee Book Company. Think of it more as a complementary opposite to your Netflix binge than a replacement for it. 

Students, academics and regular library attendees benefit tremendously from this free access, but someone has to pay the film royalties, a responsibility that falls to libraries and public institutions in this case. Although Kanopy certainly isn’t a non-profit — it was recently acquired by the digital reading company OverDrive for an undisclosed sum, in a competitive move that consolidated profits in the public library market — it pursues positive goals as either a mission statement or a business model. According to Kanopy, around 50% of revenue provided by libraries and academic institutions goes to “the independent film market.”

The company’s business model is certainly not flawless. The pricing that it offers is too steep for many libraries — the Omaha Public Library system has so far declined to partner with Kanopy, citing the steep prices that it would incur due to Omaha’s swift population growth, and three New York libraries, some of the largest in the country, discontinued their partnership with Kanopy in 2019, bearing similar complaints of unsustainable costs. These costs pushed UNO to switch to a “mediated model” of partnership with Kanopy, where titles are licensed individually — this means that UNO students can only view titles that have been licensed by the library, which is done only when a video is a required viewing for a class. Although this severely limits access to the thousands of titles that Kanopy has streaming rights to, there are still enough feature films and documentaries to keep any student busy for days on end.

So, how do you access Kanopy? First, you’ll need to go to the Kanopy website to create an account. At the sign-up page, you’ll follow the “find your university” tab all the way to the UNO log-in screen that we all know and hate so much. After that, you’ll type in the email and password combination of your choice — click the link in the verification email that you’ll promptly receive and you’ll be all set! You can access your account through a web browser, any of the various app stores or devices from our corporate tech overlords (Apple, Google, Amazon, etc.) or Roku. I personally prefer to cast movies from the app on my phone to the TV.

In the hellishly expensive new world of streaming, Kanopy is an ad-and-fee-free reprieve. It’s not a substitute for anything, but a platform that is entirely its own. If you’ve spent half an evening sifting through a bunch of content that you don’t really want to watch, it might be time to give a chance to some thoughtful entertainment.