Why I stopped speaking at universities

July 13, 2001

Imagine life in higher education without the photocopier. No opportunity for teachers to copy particularly useful diagrams or text extracts for their students; no opportunities for students to take a copy of a passage from a book too rare or too much in demand to be allowed out of the building.

What would you say the right to copy copyright materials for academic use is worth? Under an agreement thrashed out between the Copyright Licensing Agency  and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (now Universities UK) in the 1990s the price was £7 million a year - a princely £3.25 per student.

I say “was” because in July last year the CVCP unilaterally announced that it intended to reduce the payment to as little as 60p per student per year, setting in motion a legal move to force this decision on the CLA.

As a result of this action, authors have had to take a cut in their earnings, while the CLA sets aside funds to cover the likely seven-figure costs of its legal action.

The vice-chancellors and principals plead poverty. This is not, of course, personal poverty, since they have recently negotiated themselves handsome salary increases, but poverty within their institutions.

Why do they not tackle the government? Perhaps they think the individual sums involved are so small that the authors will not notice the difference or will not bother to fight their corner.

In many cases, the sums are small - as a non-academic author, I am lucky to receive £100 a year from this source. But I know academic authors who receive hundreds of pounds a year from these fees, and they are usually the ones who need the money most because their books sell only in tiny quantities, mainly to academic libraries, where their principal use is to be photocopied by students.

Some of the authors are employed in higher education and have arguably already been paid for the work involved. But this is additional work, carried out in their own time and certainly not covered by their contracts. It is easy to imagine the reaction of universities to any suggestion that the teaching load be reduced for anyone writing a book.

How can authors stand up to be counted in this battle? One way would be to withdraw their labour - stop writing books.

But it might take too long for this to have an effect.

My response has been to initiate a programme of non-cooperation with universities. Taking the only action I can, I have cancelled the talks I had arranged at various places of higher education and declined any more invitations of this kind.

I scarcely expected anyone to notice, but the response of the students who had asked me to talk to them has been gratifying - first, because they noticed, and seemed to care, that I would not be coming, and second, because when the background was explained, they offered their support and promised to make their vice-chancellors aware that, on this issue, they supported the authors. Many lecturers have also voiced their support.

But who supports the vice-chancellors? Only the vice-chancellors. Are they likely to win, or will they end up footing a huge legal bill? If George W. Bush can apologise to China to get out of a hole, surely the vice-chancellors can apologise to the CLA and restore the status quo. Until they do, I for one will not be doing anything for the universities.

  • John Gribbin writes on scientific subjects. His most recent book, The Case of the Missing Neutrinos , is published by Penguin, £5.99.

The author’s fee for this article has been donated to the legal costs of the Copyright Licensing Agency.   

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