Copyrights and wrongs

PenIt’s not all good news. Some of the principles I’ve been discussing on this blog – notably the advantages of publishing research freely on the Internet – bring with them two attendant ‘issues’ (I used to refer to these as ‘problems’ but then I became a manager, and all ‘problems’ became either ‘issues’ or ‘challenges’ ;-). They are – Data Protection and copyright.

Data Protection is, basically, the right for individuals to see, and to some extent control, personal information about them that is stored on computers. The Data Protection Act 1998 means that identifying individuals online without their knowledge or consent, while not always strictly illegal, can cause potential problems for bloggers/researchers/teachers using Web 2.0 tools – especially when you get into ‘privacy-light’ web applications like Facebook. You’ll note that where I’ve posted photos of students at work on our School website they are not identified by name, or when they are (e.g. in a pop video) this personal identification has been set up by the student themselves. This is one reason (the other being convenience) why we use embedded YouTube code with video-based student work (i.e. use YouTube playlists to find where the student has posted their own work, and effectively link to it – avoiding any issues of content ownership or DPA). If the student graduates and decides for whatever reason that they don’t want their pop video online, they can just take it off YouTube and it will disappear from the School site (this feature was, of course, unavailable to Ricky Gervais in 1983).

Scales of justiceThe other big issue/problem/challenge/hurdle is copyright. Researchers often own their own copyright on their work (perhaps – though this is open to question depending on the individual’s employment contract with their home University), and are free to publish it online (although technically teachers often can’t – in most cases their teaching materials are the Intellectual Property of the employer). So before you post anything online you have to know who owns it in the first place (disclaimer – I have a decent working knowledge of this area as a composer and writer, and a teacher of copyright relating to musicians, but I am by no means an expert). As my own lawyer says, Intellectual Property Rights are only properly relevant when there’s money to be made – and even then, they can only be enforced by the courts. And given that a great deal of research (in the arts/humanities particularly) is highly specialised, few researchers are ever going to make megabucks out of their work in terms of publisher royalties – the sales are too few in number. Publishers make money, of course, out of Universities’ subscriptions to their academic journals, which is one reason why it’s so difficult to find a lot of academic articles online unless you subscribe to a service like JSTOR. It took me a good couple of hours to unearth a research article the other day using Athens/JSTOR (it was so much hassle that it would almost have been easier to go to the library).

PadlockSo assuming you’ve figured out who owns whatever you’re posting online, you run into the problem of quality. Who says that a blog/site is any good? In the old days it was easy – peer review was applied by publishers. Now that anyone can post random unresearched opinions online (as in this blog) it’s very difficult for the concept of peer review to apply. But it must be possible; the difference between web and print as text media is that print distribution costs money (and therefore a profit-making entity called a publisher), so surely we must be able to find a better differentiator than this?!. I admire the approach of Radical Musicology, which publishes all the work freely online. Given that most academics are not funded through publishing royalties to any great extent, shouldn’t all journals be openly available?

If I’m being naiive with these ‘open source’ principles as applied to research, then this may be technically and legally true in the current climate, but I’m in esteemed company. Cornell University recently lifted its restrictions of reproduction of its public domain works. UCL now requires all its researchers to publish to an open-access online repository. And scholarly publishers in the USA are seriously miffed about the University of Boston’s decision to publish all of its academics’ research online – although inevitably this has triggered the same peer-review quality debate outlined above.

LogoThe recent attempts by the music industry to enforce copyright control (e.g. the YouTube/PRS collision, which Google is effectively going to win, and the removal of DRM on iTunes) demonstrate that it is impossible to enforce electronic restrictions when there is huge demand for online content. Indeed, throughout human history we’ve proved to ourselves – politically, economically, and especially with access to knowledge – that a minority can’t enforce control against the majority interest (for very long). And the demand for open access to online academic materials is certainly there. Every academic has had to tell students that Wikipedia is not a primary source, and many assessors apply penalties for citing it. But perhaps the cultural expectation of the student (or of any ‘digital native‘) is to be able to find anything online – if they don’t get instant gratification they won’t go to a library. And if Wikipedia is all students can find via a Google search, they will cite it. So, if we as academics and researchers make more in-depth content available without the requirement for secure e-portals like Athens, we’ll be spreading the knowledge we generate as effectively as possible…

…which is kind of what the job’s all about.


Note – if you’re interested in the issues behind this debate, read Martin Weller’s excellent ‘Ed Techie’ blog – particularly this entry about copyright, including the Larry Lessig TED lecture (which I’ve embedded below). Martin’s a Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University in the UK.


  1. Joe,
    In the UK there is still some considerable reluctance to take on the traditional academic publishers. The recent UCL announcement you highlight actually states quite clearly that submission by academics to the repository is not mandatory (in spite of a contradiction in how it was headlined in the press). As with many other repositories where material has been published in copyrighted journals etc only the metadata are logged with DOI’s through to the mainstream site. So none of the UK ones are truly open access.

    1. Agree – there’s a very long way to go! But it’s good to see that ‘consumer’ demand is gradually driving process. Publishers have, of course, no vested interest in open access. Researchers and learners have an obvious incentive to champion it. My point is that I believe this demand-driven change to be inevitable.

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