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Conference at the Wellcome Building, London, 29th and 30th March 1993

Report by Paul Sturges

Department of Information and Library Studies, Loughborough University of Technology.

This report first appeared in the May 1993 issue of the newsletter of the CTI Centre for Library and Information Studies.

Even if the subject of this Conference had not been such an urgent issue, it would have been a very satisfying meeting to attend. The quality of presentations and discussion, not to mention organization, were all of a very high standard indeed. Yet it is the urgency of the subject that is the chief matter to report. It is quite clear that a large number of projects have made a considerable commitment of funds, energy and ingenuity, to the preparation of innovative courseware, without proper consideration of the copyright implications.

The speakers and other participants were a nicely balanced mix of educationists, computer and media experts and representatives of copyright holders. It quickly became apparent that at least two quite separate cultures, with only limited mutual understanding, were represented. One tended to see educational innovation as the chief concern, with the content of courseware as something that could be added without obvious difficulty. The other put the protection and legitimate exploitation of intellectual property as the first priority and saw courseware content as merely another area in which permissions and payments needed to be negotiated. What emerged from this meeting of interested parties was broadly along the following lines.

There is a high level of difficulty involved in creating an educational product with full copyright clearance, which is illustrated by the Wellcome Trust's Tropical Diseases videodisc. Even though the Trust itself holds enormous resources of visual materials, these had been acquired with little formality. An elaborate (and expensive) system was created to trace and contact donors, copyright holders, and even patients who could be identified in illustrations. Unless all the relevant parties could be traced, contacted and permissions obtained, images were not included in the database.

It is true that a slightly less fastidious procedure was countenanced in other cases. The National Film and Television Archive will supply material for reproduction if copyright holders are completely untraceable, but even then only against a letter of indemnity from the users. Some projects, such as HiDES at Southampton University, have already developed the procedures for obtaining all the necessary clearances for text, images and software, for their courseware, in addition to preparing contracts for contributing authors and software writers, and affum the volume of work that this involves.

The question of payment for content is, naturally, one on which the copyright collecting societies are very alert. They intend to pursue the legal rights of the creators whom they represent with vigour. Whilst they accept the value of blanket licences for educational institutions, their attitude changes once the use can be seen to be 'dealing' in any commercial sense. At present the larger rights holders, such as commercial publishers, or picture libraries, may not take an ungenerous attitude towards r eproduction of materials for distribution which is only 'commercial' in a technical sense. Their levels of fees is often negotiable and will tend to depend on how widely courseware is likely to be distributed. The commercial situation is, however, changing. Hardware developers are concerned about the poor quality of content in many commercially available products and are looking for opportunities to acquire sources of content, such as picture libraries. This would probably affect access by others to this type of material. Academic producers of courseware are potentially entering a commercial world, whether they like it or not.

Faced with these difficulties many academic users at the conference tacitly accepted that they had entered this area without an adequate level of funding. Representatives of the TLTP projects, in particular, speculated as to whether they should go back, at least as a gesture, to the funders who allowed them to begin preparing courseware without providing properly for the expenses involved in the acquisition of content. Such an approach could, at the least, seek the setting up of an advisory post to serve the TLTP projects on copyright matters.

Discussion at the final session centred around other possible lines of action. Working through some agency was offered as one suggestion, but there was no unanimity as to whether such an agency should be a new collecting society offering blanket licences for courseware content, a body obtaining permissions for higher education from collecting societies and individual copyright holders, or an advisory agency offering information and guidance only. The potential for using the technology to monitor use, and therefore provide firm information as the basis for some new form of licence, seemed attractive to most parties. Unusually for an academic meeting, the idea of further meetings on the topic was not unanimously supported. However, enough people did express interest in this for the main sponsor, the British Universities Film and Video Council, to undertake to arrange another such forum. On grounds of the quality and intrinsic interest of the recent conference alone, this is very welcome.

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