Copy – right or wrong?

Copying is entwined with technology, and ideas about copyright have changed as technology changes. In the days of stone tablets I don’t think many people worried about copyright. The invention of pen and ink (see this lovely brief history of writing) made it easier to make copies of texts but it was still a slow process. Gutenberg’s development of printing made it possible to produce larger numbers of a particular text. Last year I visited the Gutenberg museum, devoted to the history of Gutenberg and printing – worth a visit if you find yourself near Mainz – and I saw some of the Bibles he produced. The copyright owner could not be contacted for permission but I don´t think He is too concerned about copying.

The Gutenberg museum in Mainz

The birth of the photocopier really changed the copzing game. Its widespread adoption in offices and then libraries meant that by the 1970s it was very quick and easy to make a copy of a page, and copyright owners began to be concerned. We started to see journal publishers charging a higher rate to institutional subscribers (usually libraries), in the knowledge that articles in journals sold to libraries would not just be read but also photocopied.

Now we are in the online age things have changed again. Whereas a photocopy of a page is never quite the same as the original, a copy of a pdf file is indistinguishable from the original. Publishers impose tight restrictions on institutions which purchase licenses to access journal content and they monitor usage for suspicious activity, such as excessive downloading of articles. Publishers have also developed DRM (Digital Rights Management) to restrict copying of ebooks.

Recently I printed a short article about copyright by Robert McCrum in The Observer and was surprised when 22 pages spewed out of my printer, thanks to vigorous comments thread that I hadn´t spotted was there. McCrum highlighted some of the challenges to copyright in the age of “free content” and the Free Culture Movement, but argued that technology was the real threat to copyright. The comments developed into a real scrap between proponents of the public domain and those wishing to protect the rights of authors, even well after their death. The comments came alive once Michael Hart entered the fray. Hart is the founder of Project Gutenberg and I remember receiving his emails in my inbox back in the 1990s, arguing intelligently and eloquently about copyright and the public domain. He had the uncanny knack of typing perfect prose in precisely 80-character wide paragraphs, i.e. perfectly right-justified with no extra spaces. He is still well worth reading.

Alex Wade, writing the following day in The Guardianabout new media , also drew attention to the way that the “Web 2.0 zeitgeist of openness” was challenging corporate distrust of “notions of sharing and connectivity”. Wade quotes media lawyer Graham Hann:

“the next 12 to 24 months will see a fascinating series of developments as consumers and businesses seek to find a level playing field… The law has to play catch up and deal with this tension between consumers and suppliers”.

Francis Gurry, Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), agrees. Speaking last month at a conference on Future Direction in Copyright Law he said that “the old principles of intellectual property regulation are strained in the Age of the Internet” and asked:

How can society make cultural works available to the widest possible public at affordable prices while, at the same time, assuring a dignified economic existence to creators and performers and the business associates that help them to navigate the economic system?

His answer involves a series of balances, between availability and control, consumers and producers, society and individuals, consumption and culture. He says that digital technology and the Internet have changed the balance and that the copyright system must adapt or it will perish. He then enumerates a number of principles that should guide policy change:

  • Neutrality to technology and to business models developed in response to technology
  • Comprehensiveness and coherence in policy, through a combination of law, infrastructure, cultural change, institutional collaboration and new business models
  • More simplicity in copyright.

His article is thoughtful, informed and well worth a read. I was reassured that WIPO is in such good hands since it drives copyright policy throughout the world.

More parochially, last week saw the close of the call for evidence for the Hargreaves Review of Intellectual Property and Growth. This review was announced last November and covers all aspects of intellectual property, including copyright. The call for evidence asks specific questions on copyright, seeking among other things to compare the UK copyright framework with that in other countries, to review whether it has adapted to the digital age and identify problem areas, and to find non-legislative changes that could help.

The list of people consulted includes the British Library and LACA (Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance) as well as copyright owners groups and publishers. On his blog Ian Hargreaves says they’ve had more than 180 submissions and hope to report to Ministers some time in April. What happens after that is anyone’s guess but hopefully it will be published.

Hargreaves is hopeful that he can propose improvements, saying:

the review will not be reckless in pursuit of change: it will seek reforms which are designed to improve the economic contribution not only of the UK’s creative industries, but also of the many other industries which rely, increasingly, upon intangible intellectual property assets, the internet and innovation for their success.

I’m not sure whether scientific research counts as an industry, but for sure it is an activity that relies heavily on “intellectual property assets”, or knowledge as some people call it. I have written before about the problems caused for science when copyright laws are set to benefit the film and music industries. I was quite timid in that earlier post but inspired by Peter Murray-Rust (also this one) I think I should now come right out and say that copyright in scientific research is a nonsense, a barrier to the flow of knowledge and it has no place in science. It is interesting that both the WIPO Director General and the Hargreaves Review call for evidence mentioned cultural change as being just as important as legislative change. I think the science community should embrace the culture of Open Science, Open Access and Open Data. Leave copyright to creative industries.

In the comments Cath points out that this post appears twice on the OT home page. I had a problem here yesterday that Richard helped me with. But I then edited and published the post not realising that version had him as the author. I then copied and reposted the item and deleted the first version. Unfortunately deleting it from my blog doesn’t seem to delete it from the front page of OT.

In addition I am now not able to comment on the post, hence I have put the comment here. I think it’s the copyright demons exacting their revenge.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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5 Responses to Copy – right or wrong?

  1. I’m interested in why there are two copies of this post on the OT front page… deliberate?!

    (the other one has rpg listed as the author, but results in a 404 error on this blog, if that helps. I thought it was a deliberate joke until I saw the 404!).

    By the way, your comment about the bible’s copyright reminded me of this!

  2. rpg says:

    Whereas I can comment. I’ve deleted the dupe from the front page.

  3. Frank says:

    Great, thanks.

  4. Frank says:

    Oh, it worked!

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