I attended the London Book Fair again today, and one of the sessions I attended was a talk (or series of talks, to be precise) under the heading 'Copyright Under Threat?'
I've been aware for some time of rumblings about looking at the status of the copyright provisions for educational materials both in the UK and abroad. To summarise the situation (and in so doing to grossly oversimplify it), some people and governments think that all educational stuff should be free to use by teachers, schools, and other educational bodies.
I don't think it takes a genius to figure out what the result might be, although the Canadian government went ahead anyway. More about that in a moment.
It's always dangerous to take a single case, such as oneself, and extrapolate that to the entire population, but I'm going to do it anyway. If I was suddenly told that anything I produce could be used, or at least copied and distributed, completely free of charge by teachers and schools, I'd stop producing it. I'd channel my writing skills and knowledge into a genre in which I'd be paid when someone wants to 'borrow' bits of it. I think anyone who says they wouldn't must either not understand the situation fully, be extremely magnanimous or have other means, like a salary.
Now Canada provides a good case study. I don't know the full details, but in 2012 the Canadian government decided to include educational materials in its Fair Dealing clause. This is a clause that, in a nutshell, provides exceptions to the need to obtain permission to use extracts and distribute copies of materials. In the UK, we have a different set of exceptions known as Fair Use, which allows you to use an extract in certain situations as long as it's not a substantial extract. (What 'substantial' means is something to argue about on a case by case basis though.)
Anyway, the effects of the Canadian law change was pretty dreadful from what the speaker Sarah Faulder, was saying. For example, author income from licensing and borrowing plummeted to zero within two years, and the supply of educational materials from Canadian authors and publishers has virtually dried up. Meanwhile, schools are either having to buy imported materials, which isn't a great position to be in if you're forced to be in it, or rely on teacher-created materials. As if teachers don't have enough to do.
Other countries are considering similar changes, but so far the UK and, I believe, the EU have decided against them. But everything is up in the air.
I should say that I'm not an expert in copyright law, or international copyright laws, so don't take my word for any of this. Whenever I need to clarify a copyright issue I ask the Society of Authors, of which I'm a member (and a member of its Educational Writers Group Committee).
The conundrum to which I alluded in the title of this article is simple: teachers want stuff as cheaply as possible, and preferably free for two main reasons.
First, there are the seemingly never-ending cuts in school budgets.
Secondly -- and again I'm using myself as an example from when I was a teacher and then Head of Department -- it's a point of pride I think to get as much as possible for as little as possible without resorting to anything as tawdry as stealing. For example, I once persuaded a company to give me 30 computers for nothing, because they were going to sell them for pennies when they upgraded their systems. I persuaded another company from which I bought a class set of computers to throw in all the software free of charge. This was in the days before free software and Creative Commons.
So from that point of view, good luck to teachers for trying to get as many resources for their pupils as possible, without eating into the funds they need for other things.
But on the other hand, wearing my writer's hat, I know how much work it takes to produce something of value. And I have to eat. So from both a principle and a practical perspective, I don't see why people should use my stuff, and make copies of it, without paying me for my effort and time. If I choose to make my stuff available free of charge, or usable under a Creative Commons licence, that should be my decision, not a blanket condition imposed on me from on high.
Also, I don't think it's right that there is an expectation that people don't have to pay for something. To my mind there is something morally suspect in taking the view that what's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine.
Where I think useful changes could be made is in dealing with some academic and educational publishers' approach to granting permission to use their materials, or extracts from them. I try to do the right thing, but when I sought permission to include a variation of a diagram I came across in a book, I ran into two difficulties.
First, the publisher seemed to have no idea what a variation of something is. There seemed to be no provision for adapting the diagram, as you can do under some Creative Commons licences.
Secondly, they insisted on knowing how many copies there would be. Well, I was using print on demand, and I'm not a fortune teller. How could I know whether zero copies would be sold, or millions, or something in between?
So my solution has been to just stick a link in the book, and not include my variation of the diagram. So everyone loses out: the reader, by not having my variation to consider, me, by not having the opportunity to show my suggestions, and the publisher and author of the diagram because some readers won't bother to go and look at them. In another case I almost changed the text to avoid using an extract or indeed making any reference to it, because it was proving so hard to get permission to use it, although I decided to simply include a link in the end. No wonder publishing contracts often have a clause stating that the author is responsible for the effort and cost of obtaining permissions.
It would be great if the copyright laws included a statement to the effect that publishers (and authors) shouldn't make it impossible for people to use extracts from their work because of a mindset that believes that the year is 1967 rather than 2017, especially when they're more than happy to pay for its use.
Getting back to the bigger picture, I've always found the UK's Fair Use copyright exceptions to be reasonable, both as a consumer and producer of creative works. So my hope is that it won't be changed any time soon.