Leader: Time to prevent dispute over online copyright

December 21, 2001

The ruling of the copyright tribunal adjudicating between Universities UK and the Copyright Licensing Agency (page 6) will save universities more than £5 million a year. It will also reassure anyone producing course materials that they are not making off with colleagues' intellectual property without paying or risking long and tedious negotiations. On the face of it, while institutions will gain, authors and publishers stand to lose. In practice, however, academics make little at present from copying royalties and, in the longer term this ruling is likely to be prone to the law of unintended - and as yet unpredictable - consequences. Electronic copying will increasingly displace photocopying: national agreements are unlikely to prove effective in the face of global web publishing. And then there is the highly contentious matter of academics' contracts with their institutions, which are likely to become more specific about who owns the rights to work done in working time (itself often undefined).

There are millions of pages on open websites whose authors expect no income from them and are glad to see them used in teaching. But the free ethos of the web is in question. High-quality content does not come cheap, and while many have been content to offer material free as an enticement, the best, including textbooks and top journals, is increasingly being confined to subscriber sites and cannot be reused freely. Recession and the end of dotcom mania have engendered a more calculating attitude. Interest will now focus on discussions about site licences, allowing whole-university access. These need to be pushed forward urgently to prevent time and money being spent on disputes over electronic copying in place of paper copying.

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