Siva Vaidhyanathan on Copyright and Universities

27 October 2012


Siva Vaidhyanathan is an interesting and thoughtful scholar who often writes on copyright issues affecting higher education. His recent article summarising the outcome of legal battles between US Author's groups and Universities is an useful summary of the complex issues facing modern institutions attempting to comply with copyright law. At heart is the desperate attempts of the traditional, and increasingly irrelevant, publishing industry to somehow protect various distribution arrangements in the face of overwhelming evidence their time has past.

One of the points he made sparked a bit of reaction with me beyond this however. He describes the university as a transformative copy machine which gains special privileges as a consequence of the public good that results. He distinguishes this from the commercial self-interest of companies like Google. While I take his point in context I think he's potentially overstating the distinction between many universities and Google. The reality is that many universities are very commercially oriented and look for any opportunity to realise the commercial and economic benefits of research and teaching activities. The Bayh–Dole Act has meant that US universities in particular are driven to extract commercial outcomes, but the reality of funding during a worldwide economic depression is that all universities need revenue from whatever source presents itself.

Personally, virtually everything I create for research and teaching gets licensed under the Creative Commons. The problem is that to get promoted I, just like every other academic, need publications that are regarded as important or significant. The normal way to achieve that is to publish in highly regarded journals - and very, very few of those are open licensed. In fact, for my fields of research there's only one - Research in Learning Technology - and you can't build a credible record publishing in only one journal.

The quid pro quo for the public benefit Professor Vaidhyanathan notes in his article is the need to do better than this. We need more of the journals moving to open licences, or we need to start valuing the open journals more. I know colleagues who refuse to publish in closed contexts but sadly its a lot easier to do that when you're a full Professor and free of systems like the PBRF and normal promotions. I'm not sure where this takes us, but I do think all academics and universities should be wary of the complacent assumption that we're somehow better than Google for society in general...