UoL Library Blog

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Is copyright a help or a hindrance to UK research?

Posted by gazjjohnson on 30 July, 2010

Well I know one answer to that in recent months from Peter Murry-Rust, but today I’m reading a new report out from the British Library entitled “Driving UK Research: Is copyright a help or a hinderance“.  Interesting even before you open the 20 page report you’ll spot a disclaimer on the cover – that opinions inside are not necessarily those of the BL, which is rather odd given their corporate logo is slap bang on the top left.  What the report does aim to bring are the view points of various researchers across the scholarly UK community.  

The authors of the essays are listed within, and I must confess having never heard of any of them; which is perhaps less of a surprise given they have spoken to academics across the sector; rather than those working in the realms of copyright.  There is a superb pull quote from Lynne Brindley (CEO British Library) right at the start. 

There is a supreme irony that just as technology is allowing greater access to books and other creative works than ever before for education and research, new restrictions threaten to lock away digital content in a way we would never countenance for printed material. 

The essays are in essence case studies into the frustrations and triumphs, the needs and the opportunities, the barriers and the workarounds used today by academic researchers.  An interesting contrast given in some is that of the fair dealing defence as it pertains more liberally to US academic institutions in contrast to our own, which is a surprise.  Given what I had seen of US (c) related law, I suspected that our North American cousins were more restrictive than the UK; yet on the whole they seem to be more permissive. 

I was interested to note the experiences of some academics seeking to clear materials for inclusion in scholarly monographs, being frustrated by tracking down rights holders.  This is a conversation I’ve had more than once with researchers here at Leicester, not to mention within the course of my team’s copyright work as well. 

From the other perspective one good example of the restrictions of copyright on research is given in relation to music research and the consideration that European Commission is seeking to lengthen rather than relax the copyright restrictions on sound recordings from 50 years to 95.  While arguably academics could find workarounds under fair use, the concern is that the greater body of the public will be locked away from historical recordings as effectively as they are from recent commercial releases. 

Another study highlights the risks in creating a simple series PowerPoint slides incorporating images, films or sound recordings etc.  That each academic needs to be at least conversant with the basics of copyright is a given, but it seems today that there is a requirement for their expertise to go much further.  While here in the library we can offer support and advice (and some of my most challenging and fulfilling conversations with academics in the last year have been in this realm) there are only so many hours in the day. 

Throughout the report there is a sense of frustration in the restrictions blocking the research of the individuals in some ways – and in many respects the commercialisation of the rights for deceased authors falling into the hands of commercial entities seems to be a particular challenge to some researchers.  Again having experienced the length of time and often considerable sums expected to license the rights of scholarly object for scholarly purposes (like BlackBoard) I found myself nodding in agreement. 

The role that advances in technology have is mentioned in more than one places.  I’ve oft-repeated the saying I heard years ago w.r.t. “Leaps in technology, lumbering legislation”, and it seems the more routes and ways that are available to access information for researchers, and the more (c) restricts them, the greater their frustration and the likelihood that they will simply ignore it and use it anyway.  While personally I’ve strong sympathies, with my work hat on this is something that is going to cause difficulties in the future for the sector as a whole.  Just takes one litigious publisher to decide enough is enough, and suddenly we’re in the middle of a shooting war.  Legally that is. 

The executive summary neatly identifies four key areas of commonality, which in brief are 

  • Calls for an extension to fair dealing provisions under UK copyright law to bring them into line with fair use doctrine in the US.
  • Allowing the use of orphan works.
  • Enforcing creators’ moral rights in order to preserve future creativity
  • addressing the issue of text mining and data indexing in the context
    of the barriers posed by the existing copyright regime.

Are the findings eye-opening?  Yes to a degree, but from conversations and experiences in recent years I can’t say that I’m surprised.  One only has to look to the open access movement to see what happens when academics rebel on mass over restrictive rights issues.  This report is therefore a must read by anyone working in copyright in the HE or FE sector today, especially in the support services!

(with many thanks to Graham Cornish for bring the report to my attention, credit where it’s due after all!)

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