Digital copyright law will be 'burdensome'

Universities say they already police compliance and infringements effectively. Matthew Reisz writes

January 28, 2010

Major concerns have been raised about the impact of the Digital Economy Bill on universities, which fear it is likely to result in a "bureaucratic burden and muddle".

A central aim of the Bill, which is currently before the House of Lords, is to tackle online copyright infringement - something that Toby Bainton, secretary of the Society of College, National and University Libraries, said "everybody supports".

However, there are fears that universities, which will be held responsible for the activities of their students, could be unduly affected by the proposals.

Mr Bainton said it appeared that "the position of higher education has not been clearly thought through", adding that the sector "already has good systems in place that ought to be recognised and worked with".

"We have one of the best networks in the country for compliance, with millions of account holders," he said.

Andrew Cormack, chief regulatory adviser at JANET UK, the network that connects university libraries to each other and to the internet on behalf of the Joint Information Systems Committee, explained how this works in practice.

When copyright holders spot that a student is infringing copyright, usually by accessing music or videos, they send a report directly to the university concerned.

"Universities check the reports against their own logs and then contact the individual about it. Single warnings invariably prove effective and don't require a second warning, with students often creating a ripple effect by passing the message on to friends," he said.

Mr Cormack added that the scale of the problem was "pretty small", citing an example of one institution that has 10,000 users and gets about one complaint a week.

"Copyright infringement within higher education is not essentially a technical matter, so we don't see technical solutions as the most effective. Universities have a good way of addressing the problem on a human level."

All that is generally required, he said, was to have "a quiet chat" with first-time offenders, although institutions do keep records to ensure compliance.

Mr Bainton said he was worried that these pragmatic and effective arrangements - which he said the rights holders seem happy with too - may be replaced by a "one-size-fits-all system" more suited to domestic or business scenarios.

"Our network is used for things that the average household's isn't," he said. For example, material that is otherwise restricted can be legitimately copied for research purposes.

"Universities don't want to go in for website blocking," Mr Bainton said. "It's not about shirking our responsibilities, but we think the systems being put into the law are very difficult to apply. It would be better to grant immunity to higher education institutions provided they put in place the policies required by JANET for dealing with complaints."

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