Should universities break copyright law?

[Note – I know others have expressed this, David Wiley and Lawrence Lessig I think, but couldn't find their quotes, so if anyone has them, please let me know and I'll work them in]

A few things coalesced for me today. For a start Alan Cann sent me a link to this video on Boing Boing. It's a remix of Rip! Brett Gaylor's documentary on remixing and copyright, and makes the point about the ludicrous nature of copyright very well. The essential argument is that copyright is now used to prevent creativity, not protect the creators. It is a control mechanism. The culture clashes it reveals are truly revealing (the chap in the interview with Chuck D is like some nasty Hollywood villain), and this culture clash is fundamental in how our society develops.



Secondly, John Naughton gave a seminar on Zittrain's The Future of the Net at the Open University. I couldn't make it, but Doug live-blogged it here. The book is about how the Net could be locked down, and controlled, because this seems like a logical thing to do against the uncertainty of an unknowable, open future.

Thirdly, I've had the audio pulled from yet another of my YouTube videos, with the ominous statement "This video contains an audio track that has not been authorised by WMG. The audio has been disabled". The track was by Death Cab for Cutie and I know a few people have discovered the band because of the video – so the argument that they are protecting the artist doesn't stand up.

Fourthly, I've been involved in some course production, and the rights clearance is always a tortuous issue – even to include one of my own articles in the course.

Lastly, WriteToReply put up the latest output from the Digital Britain Report, a proposal to create a Digital Rights Agency. The proposal says some good things:

"In the old
analogue and physical world a lot of the value in creative content is
protected by restricting where and when it can be accessed.But that model is increasingly irrelevant online. "

But then it rather lacks the strength of its own convictions and concentrates on how we might enforce copyright, and starts throwing in heavy threats:

"we set out a narrowly drawn legislative proposal to
reduce significantly unlawful P2P activity. This should be seen as
complementary to a rights agency that delivers a robust self-regulatory
framework, including action to prevent and reduce online piracy. This
should make a real difference. However, it has to be made to work by
the industry participants,…But the Government‟s objective of
significantly reducing the level of online copyright infringement, and
in particular unlawful P2P file-sharing (of which we set ourselves a
target last year to achieve that reduction within 2 to 3 years), should
not be doubted."

I read this as 'If the ISPs don't play ball we'll get really tough'. This is about control again, not about creating the environment for a digital economy where reuse and remixing is seen as the lifeblood. Perhaps most telling is the Wordle of the document:

Wordle: DigitalBritain - strawman
Which has led me to consider the role of universities in all this. We are on the whole very subservient about copyright. We always go along with the rights holders, even if they want to charge exorbitant fees for content. But if we view this as one of the major struggles of modern society then shouldn't universities take the side of social justice? They should at least have a position that is more thought out than 'we do what they tell us'. It may be that they do agree with the current enforcement of copyright as a social and creative good. I'd disagree but at least they are taking a side. I would prefer to think that they take an informed role in promoting openness. This doesn't mean straightforward piracy, but rather the promotion of creativity, knowledge generation, and sharing. So, their ultimate response may be a rather nuanced one 'we support X, under these conditions, but not Y'.

But it may require them to be brave, and not be bullied by copyright lawyers, to take a moral, and social, stand on these issues. At the moment, I think most universities are still in the traditional mindset and they feel that their role is to exhibit the utmost caution in regard to copyright. But this is no longer a side issue and as reuse and copyright take centre stage, universities may need to rediscover some of their old backbone and calling for a noble cause. Make no mistake – this will be a real battle and those who want to maintain copyright as control will get vicious. Simply going along with them will have moral implications.


  1. Good points (and ta for the link!).
    I think Universities tend to be (over-)punctilious about Rights issues, thanks to ancient habits and concerns about giving proper attribution, which is an entirely legitimate and core concern for scholars.
    There’s the Creative Commons BY option now, of course, but in practice even that minimalist requirement is ignored by most remixers. People like us try to be careful about this sort of thing, because we really want to preserve the (academic?) good that is rigorous attribution, but most people couldn’t care less and don’t bother even if they notice that they could avoid their habitual illegality by sticking your name on the stuff.
    We can do a lot though – the push to Open Access publishing is very important, I think, and the entire OER movement. But I’m preaching to the choir making that point here :-)

  2. Easier said than done Martin. Like it or not the CDPA is an economic tool.
    BTW I’ve heard that the rights processes at the OU are excellent – I’ve also heard they acquire content at very low cost. Perhaps if they had difficulty with your authored work you had inadvertently given your rights away to another publisher?

  3. Alma – that’s not my point. The OU copyright services in the OU are excellent. In fact their very diligence is part of the problem. We make sure every possible image, music clip, or person in a video clip is cleared for rights. And this is playing the copyright control game. It effectively blocks their use by normal people who don’t have the OU to chase up clearance. So my argument is whether universities should be taking a stand on behalf of others. An example might be, instead of trying to clear everything in our video archive we make a stand and release it all arguing it is for the common good to do so.
    The use of an article is a very small case – I think it was cleared at no cost, but the fact that we had to ask really bothers me. It is an indication of how the wrong-headedness of copyright has become such a standard practice that we don’t even acknowledge it anymore. I wrote the effing thing, they make money off it, and then we have to go and ask if could we please use it to teach students?

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