Why is copyright law so unhelpful?

An old hat

Well, good question. The main reason is that most copyright law is based on legislation from an era when computers were really only used to get men to the Moon and back and weren’t thought to have any day-to-day application for the likes of you and me.

Hence what’s legally allowed copyright-wise is rooted in the printed word and extremely difficult to apply to the online digital cyber-type world we all live in these days. While technical developments have continued apace (“Ooh, look how easily I can copy this stuff from this really useful website”), legal entitlements are still stuck in the past (“What a shame copying this stuff from this really useful website is against the law”).

So what are the chances that this might change anytime soon? Well again, good question. We’ve recently sent in a reply to a consultation by the Intellectual Property Office which maybe offers some hope. The proposals in this consultation work almost exclusively to the benefit of higher educational in the UK, so hoorah for that. In fact it may surprise you how few of these activities are not already allowed, given that so little material copied in a university is put to commercial use.

  • The consultation proposes to extend what’s known as the “educational exception” in copyright law by removing the existing limits which allow only a) “copying by non-reprographic means”, i.e. with a pen, pencil, crayon or presumably by chipping away at some sort of slate and b) access to copied materials only within university buildings.
  • It suggests that “fair dealing” provisions be extended so that films, sound recordings and broadcasts can be copied for non-commercial research and private study. At present this entitlement only applies to literary, dramatic and musical works which appear in printed form. Students of some disciplines (music, journalism, sociology) are at a real disadvantage here.
  • The consultation recommends that terms of licences should be more generous. Some don’t even accommodate the basic entitlements inherent in copyright law. For example, e-book suppliers often block students from copying more than 5% of a particular title even where they’d have to exceed this limit to copy a whole chapter. Copyright law would allow you to copy the whole chapter even if it was more than 5%.
  • (One for the Library e-resources team here!) The work involved in understanding, recording and then publicising the constantly changing terms of every e-resource licence we have is one we as Library staff simply can’t do. So we’re obliged to take the terms of the least generous licence we have, use them as a default and apply them across the board. If all licences simply toed the line with copyright law we’d have a much clearer idea of the base line and so users would benefit from more generous terms.

So, what are the chances that these changes will happen in our lifetimes? Well, once responses from universities like ours have been considered, they have to be thrashed out (let’s say “negotiated”) with the publishing sector who might not as enthusiastic as we are about what’s proposed. Then it will be up either to members of the Coalition–if they’re still around–to see them through or to the new government to continue the momentum. Or maybe they’ll consider that they have other fish to fry…

So who knows? At least it gives us an opportunity to bring these issues out into the open. If that leads to greater understanding among the political elite of the massive way in which the whole of education is hamstrung by archaic copyright laws that’s got to be a good thing, no?

(Image: Creative Commons Licence from chefranden)

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