Monday, June 07, 2010

New history of piracy

Sean Kheraj and Active History get things precisely backwards in their comments on the new copyright-amendments bill. It's a reversal we are likely to see a lot.

The changes to copyright law, they tell us, have significant benefits for historians. Actually, the changes have significant benefits for universities, ministries of education, and school boards that may employ historians as teachers. That's a very different thing, except for historians who primarily think of themselves as loyal civil servants.

The amendment saluted by AH proposes that using copyright material for educational purposes will now be "fair dealing" -- that is, universities and schools may now appropriate copyright material for use in their workplaces without permission or payment. This has no real relation to access to materials, it's simply a budgetary saving for the administrators, who can now expropriate what they used to license. For historians who are employed by educational institutions there is no change, except that their employers will now be even more free to expropriate all the copyright material these historians may create in the course of their intellectual lives.

It's Big Education's new freedom to steal that explains the thing Sean most abhors in the legislation: the acceptance of digital locks. Big Education has declared that it must be entitled to take all the copyright work it can get its hands on, absolutely free. Obviously, some content holders respond despairingly, in the only way left to them: by trying to put their work behind locks. And Sean thinks he's the one being robbed!

Education is said to be a $40 billion undertaking in this country.  You know what, it's worth it. It's worth paying for.  But it's as reasonable for schools and universities to pay for the intellectual content they depend on as to pay the teachers who expound upon those texts.

Despite this legislation, we cannot build an intellectual culture on piracy any more than on plagiarism. Historians will have to decide if they will defend intellectual property or shill for the boss.  So far, it looks good for the bosses.

I don't have a lot of faith in digital locks. The war between lockmakers and lockbreakers is way too expensive for people like me. I'd much rather put my work out there, and rely on educators to deal honestly and fairly with it. But now we should know who the thieves are, and they all have big offices in academic administration buildings.

Update, June 7: Sean responds:
Thanks for pointing out a huge hole in my recent post about the proposed Copyright Modernization Act (Bill C-32). I had, unfortunately, not considered the impact this might have on historians who publish with commercial publishers and rely on the income from those books. I also hadn’t considered the impact this would have on custom coursepack printers and textbook publishers. I’d have to take a finer look at the details of the bill to be sure, but I suppose it might be possible for a university instructor to assign a PDF copy of 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal or Louisbourg Portraits without having to order a class set of books for sale at the university bookstore. Or it might allow instructors to by-pass custom coursepack printers like Canadians Scholars Press Inc. by scanning digital coursepacks. In these cases the costs, as you know, are often actually absorbed by undergraduate students and not universities. [Chris:  Students will still be charged for coursepacks, and when the licensing fraction of the cost is removed, it's likely universities will still charge students the same price and simply pocket a little more revenue.] 
I do, however, completely agree that this may be exploited by cash-strapped school boards under pressure from provincial education ministries to do more with less for high schools and elementary schools. This indeed could be a big loss for commercial publishers and possibly for their authors (depending on the particular royalty agreements between authors and publishers).
While I’m not certain that this legislation would usher in a new era of piracy, it could certainly disrupt current commercial publishing business models that rely on course textbook orders or even software licensing to get a slice of that “$40 billion undertaking in this country,” we call education. I’m inclined to agree with your point that “it’s as reasonable for schools and universities to pay for the intellectual content they depend on as to pay the teachers who expound upon those texts.” However, this does raise the question of whether publicly-funded universities (or other schools) and their instructors have any obligation to support the existing business models of private commercial publishers that have been built upon the public education system.
In the end, most of the textbooks upon which educators rely are produced by commercial publishers and universities, school boards, and ministries of education should recognize and pay for the intellectual labour put into these works. Whether we like it or not, the publicly funded school systems in Canada are integrated in the commercial education industry in a similar manner to the way public health insurance systems in this country are integrated into the commercial health industry. Unless this changes, I would have to agree with your final point that when it comes to the intellectual work of authors such as yourself educators must “deal honestly and fairly with it.”
Thanks again for adding your commentary to what is a critical issue for history educators, researchers, and authors.
A polite, thoughtful discussion on copyright -- not something we see too often!
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