A legislative battle is under way over the future of the German copyright system, which unlike in the US or UK, gives academics royalty payments if their articles are used by lecturers and students.
In Germany, a professor with a decent back catalogue of widely read articles can net thousands of euros a year, part of a long-standing arrangement that redistributes hundreds of millions of euros annually back to authors, photographers and musicians for the use of their work.
Yet the potential bureaucratic burden of administrating this system has led to a conflict between universities and the society – VG Wort – that collects and distributes royalties on behalf of authors, including academics.
Owing to German constitutional protections of intellectual property, authors receive compensation when their material is used in a lecture or put on a student platform such as Moodle, explained Armin Talke, head of the German Library Association’s legal commission. Libraries also have to pay a collective lump sum for lending out books, he added, in addition to the cost of buying them.
From a single article in a legal journal, Dr Talke said that he receives about €150 (£126) a year in royalties. “OK, that’s not really a lot, but if I’m writing 30 articles a year...it can get [to be] good money,” he said. Prolific academics who have their work used widely can bring in “a few thousand” euros a year, he added.
This system does not directly cost universities money, as royalty fees are generally paid to VG Wort by Germany’s federal states, not the institutions themselves.
But the fear is that under a new system favoured by VG Wort, lecturers could be swamped by the administrative task of recording precisely what materials they use during teaching, and German universities have been engaged in a long-running fight against having to log each use of authors’ material. “This is a huge administrative burden on the universities,” Dr Talke said.
Instead, the universities are pushing for a system where a lump sum is paid to VG Wort to be redistributed among authors, so lecturers are not overwhelmed by bureaucracy.
The issue could soon be decided by German lawmakers. New legislation is currently being scrutinised by Germany’s Bundesrat, the legislative body that represents federal states. As it stands, the proposed legislation would favour the payment of a lump sum over a pay-as-you-use system, said Dr Talke. “If it stays like this...this draft would solve the problem [for universities],” he said.
VG Wort did not respond with a comment in time for Times Higher Education’s deadline.