Education institutions could end up paying twice for the use of copyright material if the European Union succeeds in imposing a levy on blank tapes.
The EU's Directorate General XV, responsible for the internal market and financial services, is expected to produce a draft directive by early December. If approved by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, the directive would force the United Kingdom to impose an extra charge on blank recording media. The money raised would be redistributed to the music industry, broadcasters and other copyright holders.
"It is very disturbing to us," said Frank Harris of the Educational Copyright Users' Forum. "It implies great increases in costs to educational institutions which are already paying licence fees to groups like the Copyright Licensing Agency and the Education Recording Agency."
The ECUF brings together 17 organisations in the education and local authority sectors, including the National Council for Educational Technology, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, and several educational trade unions. In a response to the EU green paper on copyright and related rights in the information society published earlier this year, it says that a levy would "result in injustice to a whole series of users". Not only lecturers, teachers and students, but blind people and other disabled groups would be affected. If a levy is imposed despite the objections, the ECUF would at least hope for exemptions for education purchasers.
Most EU governments have already introduced levies on blank tapes with little opposition from the education sector. France and Germany have blanket levies. In the Netherlands blind people are exempt from the levy but there is no exemption for other disabled groups or for education.
Denmark imposed a massive levy amounting to Pounds 1.50 on a videotape. Sales of tapes slumped as Danes crossed the border into Germany to buy them. Only in Belgium did teachers mobilise and win an exemption for education.
There is still no levy in the Irish Republic, Luxembourg or the United Kingdom. The last serious attempt to introduce a levy here was during the passage through Parliament of the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act. The proposal was thrown out by the House of Lords on the grounds that it was impossible to introduce a system which could be applied fairly.
Mr Harris said: "I want to see the Department for Education and Employment taking a proactive line on this, which it has not done for many years."
Librarians and information professionals have responded vigorously to the green paper proposals, which they fear could restrict research and private study. A working party led by the Library Association complained that "the whole thrust of the paper is concerned with the interests of rights owners."