The ethics of copying in libraries: a report from Chris’s keynote in Prague

Charles Bridge by Jane Secker CC BY-SA

The week before last (4 September 2019) we travelled to the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague to attend a seminar organised by the IVIG – the information literacy organisation for librarians in the Czech Republic. The reason for going was that I’d been invited to deliver my first ever solo keynote on the topic of copyright and plagiarism in libraries. My talk was entitled “The Ethics of Copying in Libraries: Piracy, ignorance and civil disobedience” (presentation on Slideshare) and the abstract for it was as follows:

Chris opens his keynote. Photo by Jane Secker CC BY-SA
“In this lecture Chris will consider the role that libraries and librarians have played in the history of copyright and the legal basis on which citizens are able to access and use information. He will look at the ways in which libraries have contributed to the debate around copyright law and the role they play in underpinning ethical and responsible behaviours. He will conclude by reflecting on the current debates around copyright in Europe, the controversy surrounding SciHub and the slow but steady journey towards open practices.”

This opportunity came about when Kristyna Paulova from IVIG had asked me to cover the subjects of both copyright law and plagiarism as this was something the group had decided to focus on. Initially I wasn’t sure what approach to take because I have more experience handling questions about copyright than I have with dealing with plagiarism cases. However it seemed to me that there was a story about ethics and the law and the role that librarians play in managing institutional risk and upholding academic integrity.

I found the preparation for the talk really interesting as it made me think quite critically about the differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement. I made reference to the website Plagiarism Today which is run by Jonathan Bailey and is a good resource for those interested in the topic. But I also found that a Twitter exchange about the presentation introduced me to the work of Brian L. Frye which made me question my initial assumption that plagiarism was always unethical in contrast to copyright infringement which was ethically less clear.


His paper “Plagiarism is Not a Crime” was an interesting provocation on this point, arguing that in many ways plagiarism could be seen as socially beneficial according to the utilitarian justification of copyright.

Chris giving keynote in Prague – photo by Jane Secker CC BY-SA

I was also able to talk about the upcoming EU Copyright Directive without getting too distracted by the B word and confirm the important role that librarians continue to play in interpreting copyright law in practice and supporting teachers, researchers, students and the general public.

We found the rest of the seminar very interesting as the organisers arranged for us to have a translator who allowed us to follow the rest of the presentations. These included a presentation from Pavla Kovarova from Muni University on the Czech analysis from the international CoLIS study of copyright literacy amongst library and information sciences students. This prompted Jane and I to talk about analysing the results from the UK survey which we are leading on. Another presentation from Anna Drgova on Creative Commons was well received and linked up very nicely with some of the messages in my keynote about the move to open practice. A session on use of Turnitin from Sarka Grofova from Charles University showed that all universities are facing the same challenges when it comes to promoting good academic practice. It was interesting to note that so far only one institution in the Czech Republic were using a plagiarism detection tool. One of the challenges in take up was that such services typically work better for English language content and it’s only recently that they will be effective in institutions where other languages are in primary use.

Finally Jane and I led some of the delegates through a copyright card game session and a quick demo of the Publishing Trap which turned out to be a lot of fun.

Playing Copyright the Card Game in Prague by Chris Morrison CC BY-SA

I would like to thank our hosts at IVIG, particularly Kristyna for inviting me, Pavla for making the arrangements, Alex for welcoming me to the session and Hana and Lenka for taking us for a Czech beer or two afterwards.

Anyone interested in hearing more on what I had to say on the keynote topic, please get in touch.


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