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Respect Copyright (and Subvert It!)

Posted by Brian Kelly on 18 Jun 2009

The Digital Britain Report

The Digital Britain report was published a few days ago and as is stretches to over 230 pages we’ve needed that time to digest the report or, perhaps more likely, allow others to read the report and publish their summaries! My specific area of interest in the report is what it says about copyright.

The report describes how “Already today around 7.5% of total UK music album purchases are digital and a smaller but rapidly increasing percentage of film and television consumption is streamed online or downloaded” and that although “User-generated and social content will be very significant” it will not be “the main or only content“.

The report goes on to argue the case for the ‘creative industries’ and repeats their claims that they “have indicated they suffer considerable losses from unlawful peer-to-peer file-sharing” – and fails to acknowledge the criticism of these figures described by Ben Goldacre’s “Illegal downloads and dodgy figures” article in the Guardian’s Bad Science column.

Section 18 of the report puts the recommendations bluntly:

This is unacceptable. The Government considers online piracy to be a serious offence. Unlawful downloading or uploading, whether via peer-to-peer sites or other means, is effectively a civil form of theft. This is not something that we can condone, or to which we can fail to respond. We are therefore setting out in this report a clear path to addressing this problem which we believe needs to result in a reduction of the order of 70-80% in the incidence of unlawful filesharing.

My fears are that equating use of networked technologies with large scale copyright infringement will lead to organisations’ being conservative in their approaches and being unwilling to take any risks that they might be seen to condone the  ‘serious offence of online piracy’.

So let’s look at other views on copyright, beyond the teenage kids who seem to stand accused of downloading music and videos and ruining the country’s economy (I’ve tried to avoid the temptation to say the bankers have done that, but have failed!)

“Copyright Warriors”

Earlier this year Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University wrote a blog post on “Universities as copyright warriors“, this being a follow-up post to one which asked “Should universities break copyright law?“. In the former post Martin described how he:

wasn’t arguing that universities should ignore copyright because they think they’re special, or that they should advocate wholesale piracy. Rather it was that universities are in a privileged position. They can fight on behalf of the general populace.

Professor Stephan Harnad, University of Southampton, has been fighting for the research community for several years. You just have to visit the Open Access Archivangelism blog to see evidence of the work being done by Stevan and many fellow open access researchers not only here in the UK but around the world. “Ensure your research publications are published in an open archive” is their cry “and make publicly-funded research openly available“. And such simple requests are supported by significant examples of technical solutions, business models,  institutional services and growing international pressures to build on this work.

Professor Peter Murray-Rust, Reader in Molecular Informatics at the University of Cambridge (who, incidentally, has his own entry in Wikipedia), has been making a similar plea to open up scientific data. Peter recently argued that “Copyright in Scientific Theses is holding us back; Ignore it“.  Peter’s opening comments are worth noting:

I feel the dread hand of copyright hanging Mordor-like over the whole area of scholarly publishing. I heard to my horror in PennState that one University had embargoed all its theses in case they violated copyright. So I tested this in my talk and asked “are there repositories that embargo all their content for fear of copyright?” and got a few nodding heads. So I am taking this as fact, and asking:

Why is no-one except me angry about the way that copyright (or exaggerated fear of it) is stifling electronic innovation in academia?

Pete goes on to make the plea “let’s abandon copyright in science. What does it gain us? Almost nothing, unless you author a successful textbook. Nowhere else is copyright the slightest use to a scientist and its stands in their way at every step.” And note that Peter is not arguing for the abolition of copyright; he makes it clear that “if you are working in creative arts you may wish to protect your work“. Peter’s views are focussed on science. And he repeats this message loudly “SO AS A FIRST STEP LET’S JUST PUBLISH ALL OUR **SCIENCE** THESES OPENLY AND ALLOW UNRESTRICTED DOWNLOADING AND RE-USE?”.

Beyond The Professors

If you read Martin Weller’sStephan’s Harnad’s and Peter Murray-Rust’s blogs you will find much more in-depth discussions on the benefits of openness in teaching and learning and research. But the danger is that such views will be dismissed as the ramblings of professors who are secure in their own position. How can others engage in maximising the openness of resources? How should young researchers and academics respond? And what approaches can the service departments – libraries and IT Services, for example – take?

A Personal Approach

Back in 2005 I gave a paper on “Let’s Free IT Support Materials! which concluded “IT Service departments are well-positioned to encourage a culture of sharing by encouraging an open access approach to IT support materials through use of Creative Commons licences“.

In January 2006 I made a commitment  that the resources used in my public presentations would be available with a Creative Commons licence – and since giving a talk on “Web Futures: Implications For HE” at King’s College London on 27th January 2006 the title slide of my presentations has contained a Creative Commons licence. That talk was also the first time (I think) in which I recorded my talk and made the talk available also under a Creative Commons licence.

But what of the risks in making one’s own resource available under a Creative Commons licence?  What if the slides contains resources owned by others (e.g. the JISC and MLA logos on the title slide; a screen shot of the BBC Web site; etc.)? What if I make defamatory comments in my talk?

Rather than ensuring that no copyrighted material are used in my presentations I take a risk assessment approach. I weigh the risks that if I use the JISC logo on my title slide that JISC will sue me for copyright infringement – pretty unlikely!  I also try to ensure that a provide hypertext links to third party resources so that the original site can be easily found. And the Creative Commons logo has a caveat which links to a statement that points out that the slides may contain copyrighted resources. The onus is then on anyone who wishes to reuse my resources to undertaken their own risk assessment.

Professor Charles Oppenheim helped me to understand a risk management approach at a seminar he gave at UKOLN on the copyright implications of institutional repositories. In response to my question as to whether the complex copyright questions (“Podcasting lectures? What about performance rights?” ) meant that institutional repositories were unlikely to take off, Charles suggested a simple formula which could be used to gauge the risks. The Oppenheim formula is simply:


where R is the risk factor of your decision; A is the probability that you are infringing copyright; B is likelihood the the copyright owner finds out; C is the likelihood that they will care enough to take any action and D is the compensation they are likely to seek.

A simple formula which (when I asked permission to publish it) Charles told me is intended as rhetorical device rather than aiming to provide any significant deep insight. But this has been an approach I have found useful.

What Next?

What can we do if we are supportive of the views which Professors Weller, Harnad and Murray-Rust, but feel constrained by our perceptions of the risks and barriers? My suggestions:

Free your materials: Make use of Creative Commons for the materials that you create.

Take a risk management approach: Change does not occur without taking risks. So we prepared to take risks, but asses the risks and make an informed decision.

Be open about the risks: Share the approaches your have taken with others. Help them to assess the risks they may face in reusing your content.

And remember that there will be people and organisations within our sector who will have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. If, for example, you are involved in negotiating copyright deals, you may be concerned that your empire would be threatened by the widespread available of open content. Or maybe you simply don’t want to rock the boat.   But change is needed!

9 Responses to “Respect Copyright (and Subvert It!)”

  1. I think you need to be careful to distinguish the issues of copyright from the issues about the licences under which content is made available. Copyright and CC licences usually go hand in hand for example. Similarly, my understanding of the position of many involved in the open access movement around scholarly publications is not that “copyright is unimportant” but that “copyright should not be trivially signed over to the publisher”.

    I’m happy to retain copyright in my work (where I can) because it is that right that allows me to say to you, “you can do whatever you like with it”.

  2. Hi Andy, yes, the title “Respect Copyright” was meant to indicate that I was being supportive of a Creative Commons copyright licence. The subversion which I encourage covers both the risk approach and the perception that many people wrongly have that copyright prevents reuse.

    I should also have referenced Glyn Moody’s post on Creative Commons, We Have a Problem in which he describes how Creartive Commons “has a big problem: few people have heard of it according to a survey conducted on behalf of the UK’s Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI)“.

    I am very much in agreement with your final sentence.

  3. […] and certainly not just science. But as Brian Kelly (another speaker at ILI2009) makes clear ( we have to change:Free your materials: Make use of Creative Commons for the materials that you […]

  4. […] and certainly not just science. But as Brian Kelly (another speaker at ILI2009) makes clear ( we have to change:Free your materials: Make use of Creative Commons for the materials that you […]

  5. […] social content will be very significant but should not be the main or only content” – this brought to my attention by Brian […]

  6. Maybe there’s a distinction to be made between Fred who says “IT is a tool I use to earn a living” and Barney who says “IT is a product I market to earn my living.” Fred embraces a sharing model because more resources means more opportunity for him to earn wealth. Barney avoids a sharing model because scarcity – real or artificial – is how he continues to earn wealth within a market environment.


    W. (a.k.a. ‘Fred’)

  7. […] Respect Copyright (and Subvert It!) […]

  8. […] Respect Copyright (and Subvert It!) […]

  9. […] content will be very significant but should not be the main or only content” – this brought to my attention by Brian […]

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