Top 10 failings of UK HE Copyright Policies

Elizabeth GaddToday’s post comes from Elizabeth Gadd, Research Policy Manager (Publications), who works in the Research Office of Loughborough University. She has been working in the field of copyright in higher education for over 20 years and reports on some recent research she’s been carrying out into UK university copyright policies.

Last year I read over 80 UK university copyright policies.  I know – I’m an insomniac. The reason I read them was to try and understand how universities were approaching the copyright ownership of teaching and research outputs.  The findings were fascinating and the resulting papers are in progress with the Aslib Journal of Information Management and Education and Information Technologies.  But what was equally fascinating was the considerable variety of approaches taken by universities to the content, availability and management of their copyright policies.  And when I say variety, I’m really saying that most were sub-optimal.  So much so, that I couldn’t resist compiling a list of the top ten failings of UK University Copyright Policies in the hope that this might be of some interest, or at least amusement, to the UK Copyright Literacy community.  So, in no particular order, here goes:

  1. Many are poorly written. I’m not the first to notice this, but really, there is no excuse for not running your policy through a spell check or getting someone to proof read it. But beyond this superficial stuff there were often internal inconsistencies caused by poorly thought through updates, tortuous wording, or vague undefined terms.
  2. Some are just plain wrong.  Legally, I mean. They refer to outdated legislation.  They claim rights under the law that the law doesn’t give them. And many of them state that they “waive’ copyright in scholarly works, which is probably not a thing.
  3. Some are too short. The shortest policies were a paragraph long – so short in fact they could be no use at all to an academic trying to understand their legal position, nor to the university in attempting to defend theirs.
  4. Some are too long. At the other extreme, some were excessively long – 66 pages in one case.  Is anyone going to read that?  (Apart from me).
  5. Some are very old. Fourteen years old in fact.  And not just one, but four policies were this old.  Think of all the legislative, technological and cultural changes that have happened in the last decade! It is hard to believe that these documents really represented their universities’ current policy positions.
  6. They are often incomplete. This is perhaps related to the last point.  If they haven’t been updated for over a decade, they won’t be dealing with current issues. Ten per cent did not address the copyright ownership of teaching materials at all. And 80% didn’t address the copyright ownership of performances – a hugely important component of lecture capture.
  7. They can be ambiguous. Consider the following:

“The University encourages its staff to assert the University’s rights over material submitted for publication. Where a publisher will not grant copyright to the University, staff are encouraged to negotiate to retain the right, or be granted a licence by the publisher for themselves and the University to use the academic publication for teaching, research and open access purposes free of charge.”

If the university believes it owns the rights in scholarly works, why would a publisher need to ‘grant copyright to the university’? And if the publisher did grant a licence, wouldn’t this be with the university as the ultimate rightsholder, and not with the member of staff who is clearly just acting as the university’s agent?

  1. They don’t reflect the reality on the ground.  Obviously, I don’t have the evidence for this from reading the copyright policies, I can only assume from some of the unenforceable clauses (see #7) that they can’t reflect the reality on the ground.
  2. They rely on individuals to represent them to publishers. I’m thinking particularly of universities re-use rights claims here.  Of the 22 policies asserting re-use rights over scholarly works (again, see #7), ten put the onus on the academic author to either communicate this to, or negotiate this with, the publisher. This is unenforceable.  Which leads me to…
  3. They are neither understood nor policed.  Again, I am speculating here.  But if the hundreds of academics working under such policies really understood what was being asked of them, or if the terms were enforced by universities, I think we would have heard the outcry.

So the question is – what can be done?  The UK Copyright Literacy community are doing some great work to try and raise understanding and awareness levels around copyright in UK HE.  However, it is challenge enough reaching the academic community with these, often unwelcome, messages, let alone reaching University policy-makers.  And the situation is compounded by the problems not really being perceived as problems by senior management, and by copyright expertise often resting within relatively junior staff.  No easy answers to this one, but suggestions always welcome!

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