Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Talking about copyright issues in education with the UK's Intellectual Property Office

If you’d asked me a year ago to describe my thoughts towards the Intellectual Property Office I would probably have used words like ‘distant’ and ‘unresponsive’. I’ll be the first to admit my frustrations with the IPO over the Gowers Review, seeing as I, like many of my colleagues, spent a lot of time constructing a response to the second round of consultations only to watch it disappear into a vacuum. Then the Prime Minister announced a review of UK IP laws last November. Some more cynical colleagues of mine felt little enthusiasm for this, as it looked like a complete disregard of the efforts expended by the Gowers Review and re-examined the same set of issues. But I was optimistic – this review was destined to be different, heavily evidence-based with a focus on growth and innovation.

No-one was more surprised than I when the IPO set up a Twitter account and a blog dedicated to the Hargreaves Review. Not only that, an entire area of the IPO website was devoted to the Review panel, outlining the scope of the review and the submission process. The panel proactively met with numerous stakeholders, blogging about their visits on the website. I was immensely impressed by the ways in which the IPO actively engaged with the public and by the transparency of the whole process, and my faith was restored.

A chance encounter on Twitter with members of the IPO during the recent BBC Radio 4’s ‘Unreliable Evidence’ show on IP (in which the IPO featured) led to an invitation to visit the IPO to meet the copyright team. To say I was excited is an understatement, as I’m sure those who know me will agree! The agenda for the morning was set out as follows: tour, meet communications team, meet business outreach and information centre teams, tour of Copyright and IP Enforcement Directorate, presentation to and discussion with the copyright team on key issues.

The day itself was a fascinating overview of how the IPO functions and the services it provides to businesses, creatives and the wider public. Matt Navarra, the IPO’s Communications Manager, was my guide for most of the day, and after a customary tour of the facilities we settled down at his desk to look at what was happening in the world. Some of Matt’s current responsibilities include managing the IPO’s Social Media Channels, liaising with broadcasters and journalists who want to run news stories or create TV/Radio shows about IP, internal communications, working on the Hargreaves Review, launching the new ‘Peer to Patent’ web tool, finalising the IPO’s World IP Day plans, and generally keeping close links with the Minister for Intellectual Property. I thought my day job was busy!

After dealing with a few urgent inbox items, Matt introduced me to the Information Centre team. This is the hub of the IPO’s communication with the public, where a team of call centre staff answer calls on IP from all over the country. Approximately 300 of the 9000 calls received every month were about copyright, which staff said provided some of the more challenging calls. The Sales and Service team provides paid-for services to larger businesses to deal with their licensing needs, IP questions and undertaking research on their behalf, such as patent searches. The IPO are keen to extend these types of services to cater for the needs of small to medium sized enterprises, as they recognise that smaller businesses are interested in these paid-for services too. The Business Outreach and Education support SMEs and the education sector in understanding and using IP; a key way in which this is achieved is through the holding of free IP Awareness events and other outreach activities across the UK throughout the year.

From the Information Centre we moved on to the Copyright Policy and IP Enforcement Policy Directorate (CED); here, small teams of about 3 people focus on specific areas, such as EU and International copyright and enforcement issues, managing the copyright legal framework, or focussing on particular issues such as the digital agenda. They continually monitor case law and policy issues as they develop both here and in Europe. Teams also cover civil and criminal enforcement policy in relation to IP. Steve Rowan (Deputy Director – Copyright and IP Enforcement) is one of two managers who head up this unit. He also appeared on the previously mentioned BBC Radio 4’s ‘Unreliable Evidence’ show about IP.

In a large seminar room, I was invited to present issues which I saw as key to the education and cultural heritage sectors to the copyright team – an extremely unique opportunity. I explained our frustration with inadequate or absent licence agreements, in particular to address the growing need for placing audiovisual material on Virtual Learning Environments to deliver courses to students in partner institutions overseas. I voiced our concern about the rising cost of licences from collecting societies, some of which are attempting to force us to adopt licences which we don’t need and which effectively make us pay a second time for content covered by independent electronic subscriptions. Contractual clauses limiting the provisions under copyright law are another big issue for education; it would be ideal if our legislation had a similar clause to the Irish Copyright Law preventing contracts from restricting what can be done under copyright law.

Unfortunately, time quickly slipped away (as it tends to do when talking about copyright!) and I wish I could have spent longer discussing each issue in more depth with the team. Before my visit came to an end I was able to speak on one further point: the practical problems that the education sector faces on a daily basis with the use of images in teaching. Schools and colleges regulated by Ofsted are required to use images in teaching, but there are very few teachers who know much if anything about copyright. A legislative solution to the problem would be ideal, but failing that a licensing scheme could work, provided that it was sufficient to meet the needs of the sector.

All in all, I had a very illuminating morning; I never realised how widespread the IPO’s activities were and how keenly they defend the interests of the UK legal system relating to IP. The team I met were fairly young, both in terms of age and length of time in post, but had a refreshing grasp on the complexities of copyright law and the issues involved. I feel more confident now that whatever the outcome of the Hargreaves Review, there is a team of people who are more prepared than ever to engage with the different sectors and who are capable of dealing with those sectors' specific needs. Everyone recognises that copyright law is in need of reform, and I remain positive that, legislative change or not, we are in good hands.

Follow @The_IPO on Twitter for information and updates or visit their Facebook page

(all views expressed are my own)

Friday, 8 April 2011

Should copyright law just be abolished?

A controversial issue for discussion on a Friday, but an interesting one posed by David Allen Green on Twitter this morning (#copyright). Regardless of the arguments for and against copyright, I want to speculate on what it would look like for the education sector were copyright to be abolished.


We can all agree that copyright is not suited to the digital age, given that the UK law was drafted in an analogue era. The move to digital and the remarkable growth of the Internet forever changed the landscape to which copyright law applies. As the law has been slow to respond to this landscape, contracts and licences have stepped into the breach to serve as solutions in the interim period, controlling the use of works online. My knowledge of the complexities of contract law is not strong, but as far as I understand it, contract law in the majority of cases supersedes copyright law, particularly when it comes to taking a claim to court. In my view, it is probably easier to prove breach of contract than infringement of copyright, and possibly cheaper too. Now, if copyright were to be abolished, what of licences and contracts? Would they simply disappear? I think not; rights holders (including publishers and recording agencies) would continue to monetise content (to some extent) as a commodity through contracts. When you purchase a song online, you would still have to abide by the terms and conditions of the contract by which you purchase it. If that contract contained a clause which said “upon purchase of this work you agree that it is solely for your own private use”, then if the song was (say) shared online on a public website for free download, the publisher/rights holder would be able to sue the purchaser for breach of contract. And we would return to the inherent problem of organisations pursuing individuals for file-sharing.

Collecting Societies

For educational establishments, a significant element in the abolition of copyright would be their relationship with collecting societies, if they continued to exist. After all, the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) would no longer be able to keep its name in a world without copyright. It is difficult to see the need for collecting societies in a world without copyright; this makes the abolition of copyright rather attractive for education, which would save over £100,000 per year in licence fees. But on the flip side, would there still be an incentive for authors and creators to produce content for learning and education? Academics must produce journal articles to remain ahead in their field and to share research, so the incentive to create will not be removed, particularly as they are not independently paid to write. Books perhaps would be another matter; in a world without copyright, should an academic desire to write a book, getting it published could be difficult as publishers may be reluctant to invest in something which instantly could be made available for free across the world. Journal publishers too would become aggregators of a large amount of free content, and without the money they generate from licensing, would likely decrease in quality and perhaps eventually decline. In our capitalist society, people don’t like working for free. Businesses can generate advertising revenue, but publishers would have their livelihoods pulled out from beneath them, meaning no money for salaries and therefore job losses. Would authors write academic textbooks and similar for free? Some are very enthusiastic and may well do, particularly if they are already employed and don’t have to live off what they write, but others would have little incentive as the equation to them looks like a lot of time and effort for no reward.


Perhaps most significantly: where does a world without copyright leave academic discipline? Copyright surely underpins the foundations of plagiarism, as there is currently a defence in copyright law that if a work of copyright is used for the purposes of examination, it does not infringe so long as there is sufficient acknowledgement. If I, as a student, could copy and use someone else’s entire thesis or dissertation, why would I have to reference it? Could I not pass it off as my own? And if so, where would be my punishment, as I have not done anything wrong? It may not be my original work, but in a world without copyright, why should originality matter? Would it matter if I got a First as a result of reproducing other people’s work? To my mind, there is a lot of injustice in this particular issue – it feels morally and ethically wrong to merely reproduce other people’s work and pass it off as your own, as it levels the playing field. A good plagiarist, who can remix and re-work other people’s work so as to create something sufficiently original, would be more commendable in this instance, as it shows independent skill and judgement, than one who merely spouts verbatim someone else’s work with little or no original intellectual thought.

The academic world seeks to encourage learning and research by building on others’ arguments. There is currently a means for this in copyright law. Without copyright law, what is the criteria for distinguishing a poor student from an excellent one? Writing style perhaps? But if this is copied from another’s work? This sets a poor precedent for the good of society, discouraging original intellectual process and carefully constructed arguments and replacing them with laziness. And with this comes the question of ownership: without copyright, would it matter who the author was? Could you even prove they were the original author? Would it be necessary to? No, for in a world without copyright, the author is bereft; the more appreciative of us would give a hat-tip to the original creator, but others would not. The easy replication and re-use of content means that one is at a loss as to who the original author actually is, and also negates the citation process.


From the tone of this post, you may gather that I am not for the abolition of copyright, as I recognise its value to creators. But I also recognise the problems with it. Without copyright, truly original content would diminish significantly, and in its place would be remixes of previous content, in themselves no bad thing, but would we really just want that? We all lead busy lives, and I’m sure all of us at some stage have thought about writing a book, but would it really be worth giving up your weekends and evenings for several years to write a masterpiece if you knew you would receive little reward? There are some people who do this, and I don’t say that it is a bad thing, but they are few and far between. We are driven by capitalism, and that means making money wherever we see the opportunity. If content cannot be monetised, services would have to be more so, and so the trade off as a consumer would be to pay significantly more for the services of the creatives who once made a living from their copyright works. For the photographer, it would be the services of his photographic studio; for the musician, it would be the ticket sales of live gigs. For education? I would argue that academic discipline would be sacrificed, although educational establishments would save a lot of money in licensing fees. A world without copyright is akin to the “golden age” presented by Gonzalo in The Tempest (Act II sc.i), an ideal to aspire to but which cannot exist in a capitalist society where money is the driver and not morality and goodwill.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Copyright (for) Jokes?

Some time ago I was looking for copyright jokes (that is to say, jokes about copyright) to liven up a presentation entitled 'Recent Developments in Copyright'. It's a long-standing truism that copyright is, to most people, a dull subject, full of hindrance and restrictions. And, given its enforcement in and general poor suitability to the digital age, I am not oblivious to the delicious irony that copyright law can itself be a 'joke'.

However, as a Copyright Officer with a sense of humour, I was determined to unearth some witticisms on the subject of copyright. A lot of my followers on Twitter were extremely forthcoming with jokes to do with copyright, and I had an excellent response to my research (which was done, as light-hearted things always are, on a Friday). Yet, as I gathered all these jokes, quips, puns and cartoons together to find one suitable for my presentation, I had a sneaking suspicion that I may not be able to formulate them into a blog post, given that they were probably (ironically) copyright protected. So I let them be.

But today I have been encouraged and inspired by an article in the Washington College of Law's publication Intellectual Property Brief which discussed the copyright in a joke. Caroline Gousse has carefully analysed the courts' responses to the copyrightability of jokes, and has determined that it has only been in very rare cases that courts have declared jokes as attracting copyright protection. Not only that: the very reason for a joke's existence is to induce laughter, and the novelty factor of a joke wears off the more that it is told.

So, in light of this positive encouragement, I want to review some of the wonderful humour on and about copyright which was shared with me by Twitter faithfuls a few months back:

I went to a party the other day and everyone was naked, turns out it was fancy dress but it was raided by ACS Law and all the superhero costumes were copyrighted (via @patlockley)

Why do all copyright lawyers like kings and queens? Because they are big fans of royalties (via @patlockley)

An Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman walk into the bar, The Englishman says "I wish I had copyrighted this joke" (via @BugsieGiven)

I know a very good joke about copyright but unfortunately I can't afford the royalty fees to be able to tell you.. (via @Felna - a lot of people came up with the same line!)

How many copyright lawyers does it take to change a light bulb? Two - one to decide to do it, the other to actually change it (via @aaronwood)

I have a fabulous copyright joke but I can't share it as it's not licensed for redistribution (via @neonwombat)

Johnny Depp was arrested today for making pirate DVDs (via @4ndrewWall)

This is how we used to pirate music when I was a kid: http://is.gd/hmgAo (via @socialtechno)

Whoever invented the copyright symbol should have a fortune by now (via @OldFunnyJoker but thanks to @Mwirigi)

Cartoons about copyright:

http://www.courtoons.net/2009/03/16/copyright/ http://www.lonympics.co.uk/new/Aaay.php http://www.law.duke.edu/cspd/comics/digital.php http://ninapaley.com/mimiandeunice/2010/07/30/intellectual-pooperty/ http://warriorlibrarian.com/IMHO/nocopyme.html http://www.cartoonstock.com/lowres/cgo0236l.jpg http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2010-09-02/

(with greatest of thanks to all who submitted - you provided me with much amusement)