Rights of passage on ocean of words

May 28, 1999

Copyright law in the electronic age must reconcile the expectations of users and creators, writes John Davies.

The laws of God, the laws of man,

He may keep that will and can;


Not I: let God and man decree


Laws for themselves and not for me

These somewhat anarchical and irresponsible opening lines from one of A.E. Housman's Last Poems have found some reflection in the attitudes of certain university lecturers and students to copyright law and the licensing of the use of academic materials in print or electronic form. Eventually, however, like Housman, we must accept that progress can only be made on a more realistic assessment:

And since, my soul, we cannot fly

To Saturn or to Mercury,

Keep we must, if keep we can,

These foreign laws of God and man.

During the past few years, the Copyright Licensing Agency and authors' and publishers' associations have made the greatest efforts to communicate to universities the message that illegal copying of other people's work in print or electronic form is a type of theft, robbing authors and publishers of the reward due to them for the time, effort and investment that they have put into its creation. As A. P. Herbert wrote, "If creators be ill enough rewarded, they will cease to create." If copying is too widespread, there will be no textbooks, no journal articles, no electronic information available to universities because there will be no finance to provide it.

University lecturers and students are still likely to know little about the details of copyright law. To them in many cases it remains one of "these foreign laws". It is, however, important that it is observed in universities in the context of the development of electronic information systems. The people who know most about copyright in universities are the librarians. Observance of copyright is part of their responsibilities. It is therefore to them that the Publishers Association has turned to reconcile the legitimate expectations of users to be able to take advantage of new technology with the legitimate expectations of authors and publishers for proper payment for their work. The forum for these discussions has been the universities' Joint Information Systems Committee.

From these exchanges, guidelines have been produced as to what lecturers and students may copy free of charge, and systems developed for payment where it is necessary. The relevant documents will be launched in the next few weeks but are already available on the JISC website. The Publishers Association is also undertaking a survey into the use of electronic information in universities. The results will be available later this summer.

Guidelines for Fair Dealing in an Electronic Environment resists the temptation to indulge in legal jargon. It follows the fortunes of a student and budding academic called Joe. In the main, where Joe wants access to material for his own research or study, he may have it free of charge. What is not allowed is copying of entire publications or the making of multiple copies. To cover those circumstances where Joe is not able to have access to material supplied in electronic form, the publishers and universities have developed a "draft model licence". This forms the framework for an arrangement to allow the loading of material on to a server on a secure network, to provide back-up copies, to issue temporary electronic copies for authorised users and to supply copies both within libraries and to other libraries. These documents should cover all likely requests for material within universities either without charge or for an agreed payment.

Alongside this, the Copyright Licensing Agency is preparing to issue this summer a licence through which all universities may, on the basis of transactional fees, make available exact representations in electronic form of materials digitised from print. Fees will be determined by the rights-holder. The British genius for compromise has shown itself at its best in these discussions. On the wider stage of Europe, consideration of the draft copyright directive has been much encumbered by wrangling over legal niceties.

The story is told of how the 16th-century Dutch scholar Erasmus, walking home one night, found a piece of printed paper in the street. He pounced on it with joy and remained in the highest state of excitement all evening. Print was, for Erasmus, the ocean on which all knowledge would sail in the future. Electronic systems make the same claims for our time. It is incumbent on us to ensure that the mechanisms are in place for us to take full advantage of our opportunities.

John Davies is director, Council of Academic and Professional Publishers, Publishers Association, and a director, Copyright Licensing Agency and Publishers Licensing Society.

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