Ambiguous copyright law catches out scholars

September 22, 2006

Publishers and galleries are charging unnecessarily. Jessica Shepherd reports

Academics are being incorrectly told to hand over thousands of pounds to use works of art, literature and music in their research, a report has revealed.

The study by the British Academy criticises those copyright holders who wrongly charge scholars in the name of the law.

Many publishers and art galleries have failed to grasp that copyright law does not apply when material is to be used for private study, criticism, review or non-commercial research, the report points out. It argues that the demands of copyright owners hinder scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

The British Academy hopes to lobby the Government to make copyright law clearer for publishers and academics with the publication of its study Copyright and Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences .

John Kay, chair of the working group that wrote the report, said: "Academics are finding problems arising from the way the law is interpreted. Publishers are asking scholars to undertake the lengthy process of asking for permission, and for money, to reproduce copyrighted material when this may be unnecessary. Academics don't always know this."

Professor Kay, who lectures on economics at the London School of Economics, said the problem was compounded by publishers being "risk averse" and naturally defensive towards copyright.

He said: "Copyright holders have become more sensitive as a result of the development of new media and are more aggressive in seeking to maximise revenue from the rights, even if the legal basis of their claims is weak.

"There is also evidence that some of those who own a work's copyright are abusing the law by withholding material unless they are sure an academic will portray the work in a favourable light. Then there is the financial issue. Academics have been asked for thousands of pounds to reproduce a painting or a few bars of a musical score.

"There have been instances where it has been impossible for an academic to use copyrighted material. I would like copyright law to be made clearer through the development of case or statute law."

Nicholas Cook, who lectures on music at Royal Holloway, University of London, said the problem was discouraging academics hoping to research pop music, for example. He said: "The music business has no concept of what academic business is and little understanding of when copyright law is exempt."

The British Academy has also published guidelines for academics on how to understand copyright law. This includes the reminder that "use of copyright material in the normal course of scholarly research in universities and other public research institutions is covered by the exemptions from the Copyright Act".

Stephen Navin,Jchief executiveJof the Music Publishers' Association, said:

"Our members are not trying to mislead academics. Copyright law is complicated. A lot of our members earn a living out of copyright.JI think most music publishers have a good idea of copyright and the exemptions."

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