Download and learn

November 26, 1999

Edward Barrow surveys current developments in digitisation of coursework

As of this term, it is easier for higher education institutions to obtain permission to put scanned extracts from books, journals and periodicals on their intranets for the benefit of their students. The potential of information technology to support teaching and learning is unquestioned, but to realise this potential fully, technology must be able to tap the rich vein of content in paper form. Digital material is accessible from anywhere there is a network connection, so students can refer to library materials from their halls of residence or from home, and outside library opening hours. As there is no technical limitation on the number of people who can see material at any one time, there may also be cost savings if fewer copies need to be held.

There are many digitisation projects underway in university and public libraries aimed at scanning old and valuable material such as historical documents, manuscripts and incunabula. Once digitised, rare and precious resources are accessible to many more people, and further deterioration caused by opening, reading and touching the originals is avoided. In addition, old materials are out of copyright, which avoids what has been a serious problem for projects planning to digitise current and recent material. Such material is in copyright, and the act of digitisation is a form of copying and thus requires the consent of the copyright holder. The copyright problem held up many early digitisation projects such as those funded under the first phase of the eLib programme. Obtaining clearance from publishers took longer than anticipated, as anxious publishers tried to assess the risk that digitisation posed to their ventures - including their plans to produce digital publications themselves. But those early fears have now abated, and authors and publishers have agreed that digitisation should be licensed through the Copyright Licensing Agency's Rapid Clearance Service, Clarcs.

There has been a great deal of consultation to bring about the new service. Publishers who had previously been antagonistic both to the new technology per se and to any form of collective administration are now enthusiastic about the scheme and the fact that it will bring their products more easily to a wider readership while respecting the economics of publication. For much the same reasons, so are most authors - thanks to the active participation of the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society. A few authors and their agents remain apprehensive and have chosen not to participate, as have some publishers. While in the short term this may inconvenience readers, in the longer term the competitive information market-place of academia will determine which strategy was right.

CLA finally launched its scheme this year. Documents were sent out for signature by vice-chancellors at the beginning of August. Signing itself incurs no costs; they are incurred only when clearance is obtained for a particular work. Fees for the digitisation and use of an extract are determined by the copyright holder. One of the benefits of digitisation mentioned at the start of this piece - the possibility of saving money by buying fewer books and periodicals - has always been illusory, for reducing the number of copies bought means that publishers have to increase the prices of the few they manage to sell in order to cover the fixed costs of publication. By being able to determine the fees charged, rights-holders can manage a secondary income source which, together with primary sales, should earn them a return on their initial investment in the publication.

In licensing photocopying, basic fees are calculated by the number of copies made. However, this is not appropriate in the case of digitisation, because digital "copies" are both ephemeral and proliferative: they multiply from magnetic disk to silicon and then to phosphor on the monitor screen, vanishing and reappearing as windows are closed and opened. Another measure is required. In higher education, the number of students is a reasonable measure, on the basis that had the copying been made on paper, each of them would have been given a copy.

Much of the material waiting to be digitised would not be distributed in this way, but would sit on the library shelves awaiting the attention only of the more diligent students or those for whom the particular slant of the piece holds a special interest. The charging mechanism for digitisation should encourage the breadth, depth and diversity that is the hallmark of the best libraries and information provision in higher education. CLA has therefore adopted two possible approaches to pricing, to be selected by the rights-holder: a per-student approach, for material usually sold through university bookshops, and a one-off fee, for material normally sold through library-supply channels direct to university libraries. Apart from giving this guidance, however, CLA has not attempted to tell publishers which approach to adopt. As for the level of the fees, that too is a matter for the rights-holder, but for the per-student approach a level has been recommended. This is five pence per student per page, which is directly comparable to the five pence per copy per page copied recommended for photocopied course-packs. It is not binding; while most have followed it, some - as is their prerogative - have not.

At the time of writing, CLA is sending out the final administrative details to those who have signed up and the Clarcs operators are waiting to receive requests for digitisation; by the time you read this, we hope they will be handling many calls a day.

Edward Barrow is business development man-ager for new technologies, Copyright Licensing Agency.

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