A personal view of copyright
My role is to manage the legal issues that affect our Mission and day to day operations. The role of a publishing lawyer has changed significantly in recent years. This is largely due to the increasing complexity caused by copyright and the practicalities of disseminating academic works globally in a digital environment.
Copyright has been the fulcrum of the creative industries since the Statute of Anne in 1710. Designed to regulate the printing and distributing of books, its core principles evolved to provide workable frameworks for the nascent markets in gramophone records, photographs, film, video games and computer software. The system was based on a series of national laws underpinned by a near global consensus on core principles enshrined in the Berne Convention. As we know, copyright has recently been under attack from several quarters. Consumer groups, companies, politicians, activists and some academics have all expressed concerns about copyright’s relevance and/or competence in a fast moving and digitally based information economy. Their concern stems from a belief in the importance of realising the creative, economic and educational potential of the internet. I share this belief. But I disagree with the view that the way to achieve this is to abolish or reduce ownership rights in creative works. Rather, I would contend that what is required is a careful adaptation of existing IP rights and the way they are used.
- Many of the motivations for IP rights in creative works are as relevant today as they were in 1710. We still need to reward authors for their work; we still need laws to protect the creative or academic integrity of a work; and today we count the value of the creative economy in billions of pounds. Thousands of people are deployed in the publishing and Intellectual Property [IP] industries. If copyright were to be dismantled, the specialist skills developed over many centuries in content curation, filtration, adaptation and dissemination would be lost. It might seem fun for everyone at first to use existing high quality work without paying; but eventually we would be faced with fewer works of lower quality. The value lost to the Academy as a whole in the long term would far exceed any short term savings.
- Copyright is format neutral. It’s wrong to suggest that it is just a centuries-old practice that relates only to print product. It has adapted before and can do so again.
- Copyright has inbuilt solutions to the demand for greater flexibility, namely exceptions and licensing. Although the regimes work differently depending on the country, certain levels of use for certain purposes are guaranteed by law and these rights can be extended by licenses in almost any shape or form required, with the agreement of the copyright owner. Whilst I would concede that more needs to be done to introduce new licensing models that are sympathetic to user needs, this is a business process challenge, not a legal one.
I’m not suggesting copyright is perfect. Many of the tools used to balance private rights with the public interest in respect of other IP rights (i.e., registration formalities and the comparatively short duration of patents and trademarks) are missing from copyright. This was a deliberate 19th century policy decision to support the prevailing philosophical belief in the perpetual purity of the creative work. There is certainly scope for a debate around whether that continues to be a valid reason to make copyright a special case in a digital environment. We should also critically examine whether a system of national rights is workable in a borderless world. But fundamentally, I’ve seen nothing to shake my belief that the core concept of copyright is anything other than fully relevant.
But what of CUP’s role in this new digital age? Our Mission is to produce and distribute high quality educational and academic material that advances knowledge, learning and research. But although our Mission is charitable, we still need to charge a fee for our content. Why? Because unlike many other charities, we do not receive donations and therefore need to generate revenue from our product. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, our costs are rising as a result of digital, not falling. This is partly because the costs associated with physical book production were only ever a small percentage of our cost base. Whatever savings are made in this area are dwarfed by the amount required to develop new technology, re-skill our staff and rebuild a distribution and supply chain built to serve academics in the way they expect.
We are also exploring new business models, including Open Access. I actually think that Open Access offers wonderful opportunities. Our proposition has always been about merging the best of academia with high quality publishing skills. Good quality Open Access products require exactly this mix. Indeed, I see all of these things as being related; Open Access, digital publishing and copyright reform all come from the same philosophical place. Digital technology makes lots of things possible. Imperfect communication may sometimes have got in the way, but essentially most of us – librarians, academics and publishers – are on the same side in the debate; we all want to take advantage of the opportunities that technology provides whilst still maintaining the standards of academic integrity we have come to expect. Vital to that is a strong and robust legal framework that allows us all to fulfil our role within the academic ecosystem with confidence, certainty and a respect for each other’s priorities and rights.