There's a typically furious piece over at The Register this morning about education and copyright.
Leaving aside Andrew's well-known pre-existing positions, he has a point. The notion of giving educational institutions carte blanche to reproduce textbooks without limitation does have sopme serious drawbacks. It's worth popping over to the IPO website and having a look at the document under discussion which, while it's more measured than The Register piece might suggest, definitely does leave the door open to some things one might prefer weren't possible. (You want page 76 onwards of the full document.) There are conflicts in perception within it, too - well, sure, it's supposed to be there for discussion - which theoretically can be assembled into an annoying pattern. For example, the stated aims include making information available to "distance learners" and also making information available from copyright works on site. Put the two together, of course, and you do get a situation where, as Don Foster observed, an institution might purchase one copy of a textbook and make it available to any number of people who needed it within the academic community of that institution (however remotely distributed) at the same time and in perpetuity. Effectively, yes, in the conventional wisdom that textbook has just ceased to be a going concern.
(It has to be acknowledged that this perception may just be flat wrong; ask Brian O'Leary what happens in this situation - and he's done actual research, rather than just banging his head repeatedly against a desk and howling - and he might tell you a different story.)
I'm not so worried that the government may opt for this situation - even if I were persuaded that it would be as commercially disastrous as one might think at first. The IPO report is heavily hedged and the Impact Assessment on this issue includes a firm statement about not wrecking the marketplace: the goal is "To widen copyright exceptions for education to the extent permitted by EU law, so that copyright does not unduly restrict education and teaching, without undermining incentives to creators."
I'm more interested in two other things. One I noticed while I was picking through the document: there's a proposal in there to allow explicitly "text and data mining". This fascinates me because it suggests that this may at present not be allowed without consent from the copyright holder, which would mean, surely, that Google's use of a book to improve natural language search might be a violation of copyright. Given that they have digitised and may already have thus deployed a vast - mind-bogglingly vast - number of English language books, that's actually a huge deal, if it turned out to be the case. (I'd welcome input from any black-letter IP lawyers on that one - I have honestly no idea.)
The second thing is not in the document itself, but is a more general point. We need a cleverer attitude, as holders of copyright, to the digital ethos. I've been using Pinterest recently, and in a lapse of sanity I decided to use it with as near as I could manage absolute adherence to copyright. That is amazingly hard. More, it is slow. It is literally (yes, I do mean that) orders of magnitude (yes, that too) slower than just pinning the way everyone else does it. It's not, ultimately, sustainable as a way of doing the site. The crazy thing is that almost everyone I have asked has been delighted to be pinned - Pinterest is a massively expanding driver of traffic and sales. Things like book jackets, in general products and services which include brand marks and such, exist to be reproduced and displayed as much as possible, but technically doing so without consent in that setting could be an infringement. So if you're a publisher, your website should probably have a standard consent on it to let people know it's okay to pin your books and so on. The default setting for many things should be "yes, of course you can use this to publicise and discuss our product, and in fact that use is provided for in our standard boilerplate". But it still isn't, and that is a bit mad. More generally, we need to look hard and without preconceptions at what is or is not a bad thing in terms of allowing free distribution, and at the same time to preserve above all the notion that something which has use value also has a morally applicable cost. The notion that a producer of an object of value is owed recompense is the key to surviving as an industry over the next while, not the punishment of those who transgress.
I'd love to expand on that, but I'm out of time - more anon, I hope.
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