Universities offered reprieve in pandemic book licensing battle

New intervention by the Copyright Licensing Agency may offer hope to universities struggling to access essential texts

July 11, 2020
Source: iStock
When physical books can't be accessed, universities are struggling to provide all the digital material their students need

The Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) has committed to “further consultation with rightsholders” over a controversial decision not to extend a temporary relaxation of licensing rules on books and other materials for universities.

With access to campuses and their libraries closed off during the coronavirus crisis, institutions have faced major challenges in providing students with teaching materials.

Many in the sector were therefore delighted when the CLA announced on 14 April that it was “temporarily relaxing key terms of the Higher Education Licence…during this difficult period”, in cases “where a digital edition is not available through commercial channels”.

Higher education institutions would no longer be required to own an original copy of a book and could “now make use of any extract held in our Digital Content Store (DCS) or an original copy owned by an academic”.

Furthermore, “the extent limit for copying from [participating publishers’] print books” was increased to “up to 30% or 3 chapters, whichever is the greater, compared to the usual 10% or 1 chapter”.

These amendments were set to continue “until the earlier of the return to normality, or 30 June 2020”.

However, during further discussions, the Universities UK/GuildHE’s Copyright Negotiating and Advisory Committee (CNAC), which represents the sector’s interests, made the case for maintaining the new arrangements until at least the end of December.

There was considerable disappointment, therefore, when James Bennett, head of rights and licensing at the CLA, announced: “Following further consultation with rightsholders, we are unable to extend these provisions beyond 30 June 2020.”

Two members of the CNAC told Times Higher Education what is at stake.

“Universities are teaching online for the autumn term,” noted Jane Secker, senior lecturer in educational development at City, University of London. “But there’s a lot of content that’s used in teaching that’s not available in an e-book format that the library or institution can purchase to make available to students. [Other] titles are available but [are] being offered by publishers in very expensive models.” At a time when budgets were likely to be stretched, universities could ill afford “additional licences to cover all the students on the course”.

“If universities can’t provide the learning materials from September onwards,” added Chris Morrison, copyright, licensing and policy manager at the University of Kent, “it could be a major factor in their deciding to cancel particular courses”, notably in fields such as art history, where many of the core texts are unavailable in digital form.

Furthermore, a lack of appropriate teaching resources could lead to a decline in student satisfaction, with universities likely to “get it in the neck” for problems beyond their control, he said.

Discussion of these concerns, said Dr Secker, “has been going round the list of university library directors, but it has gone higher than that. We have had responses from 30 or 40 universities saying it would cause real problems if [the CLA’s temporary scheme] wasn’t extended.”

The vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge also wrote directly to the CLA to express his concerns.

In light of the reaction from universities, on 8 July, the CLA took a step back, and its co-chairs wrote to David Anderson-Evans, chair of the CNAC, saying that the agency was “pleased to advise [him] that CLA and its members are now undertaking a further consultation with rightsholders” on this issue.

“We need to work together,” said Mr Morrison, because the CLA needs the sector “as much as the sector needs their rights”.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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