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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2011

Copyright Law Must Strike a Proper Balance

By Wayne Peters
It is a great pleasure to be writing my first of many “president’s columns” for the Bulletin. I was elected president at the association’s Council meeting on May 7, after having served as vice-president for the past three years and as a delegate to Council for four years before that. I have also served over the past seven years as the president and past president of my local association at the University of Prince Edward Island where I am an associate professor in the engineering department.

As always, I am struck by the breadth of the issues with which CAUT deals as evidenced by the agenda at this past Council meeting. On the other hand, I am continually amazed by the quality and remarkable commitment of the individuals involved who take on the tasks at hand and who provide CAUT with the capacity to respond to these issues. One such issue is copyright and how it affects our academic work. I would like to use my first column, then, to talk about CAUT’s efforts to provide insight and practical advice on this front.

As you are keenly aware, one of the prerequisites for the creation, advancement and dissemination of knowledge is the ability to access, study, expand and share our works and the works of others. This is fundamental to the scholarship and teaching of all academics and the missions of our universities and colleges across Canada. In this way, new knowledge is built on existing knowledge.

There are, however, rules for how this should happen. The access to and use of much of the material and information that is published, including our own, is governed by copyright law which strives to strike a balance between the rights of the owners and those of the users. Since academics occupy the position of being both owners and users, it is critically important for each of us to understand the rules. This will help ensure not only that owners are appropriately remunerated and acknowledged for their work but also that the body of knowledge that is out there can be accessed as freely and as openly as possible.

In certain circumstances copyright law allows users to copy and use protected material without payment to the copyright holder. But it is critical that academics understand the limits of the allowances in these circumstances. And it is equally important for academics to vigorously employ and defend their right to that free access and use.

The law in part draws on existing customs and practices within our institutions and communities to define appropriate and fair use of copyrighted work. So, practice makes practice. Also, certain sections of the copyright law recognize individual judgment as the means to assessing the appropriateness and fairness of the use. In this context, we must proceed with prudence and sound judgment but without a level of trepidation which might lead us to individually impose uncalled for restrictions on our free use of protected information in circumstances which the law fully intended to be appropriate and fair.

Navigating the waters of copyright law is no easy task. And, recently, there has been much confusing and conflicting advice from groups of interested stakeholders. In response, CAUT has continued its work on copyright by developing a set of guidelines to assist in determining when copyrighted material may be copied or used without permission from or payment to the copyright owner.

These guidelines, which can be found on the CAUT website, clarify copying rights and provide direction on their lawful exercise. In the document, CAUT takes the position that the interests of both owners and users must be treated fairly, and that there must be a balance between the rights of creators and owners and the free access to and use of copyrighted material.

It is CAUT’s hope that these guidelines will empower and equip us to more vigorously employ and defend our rights to use copyrighted material. This is particularly important in light of the much more cautious approaches taken by some of our institutions in discouraging and restricting the copying of works that would otherwise be appropriate and fair, and to limit what can be put on library reserve even though such practice has nothing to do with copyright. Such actions must be resisted as they only lead to an undermining of the full academic mission espoused by our institutions and enjoyed by each of us in our scholarly work and teaching.

Further, CAUT hopes that these guidelines will inform our discussions on copyright and serve as a basis for the development or revision of institutional policy that is appropriate and fair for both owners and users.