Stanford law professor and activist Lawrence Lessig told a gathering of campus technology chiefs Nov. 5 that restrictive copyright laws are "destructive of science and education," because academia has adopted a copyright model that largely mimics that of the entertainment industry.

Lessig, a longtime advocate for the reform of copyright laws that burden writers and filmmakers with myriad legal barriers, spoke to more than 500 college technology administrators at the annual EDUCAUSE conference in Denver, Nov. 3 through 6.

Copyright law has expanded over the past century so that it "reaches across the spectrum" of modern culture, controlling which artists and companies can use what music and images for any kind of media production, Lessig said.

"The law now is reaching in ways never intended, never planned, by the framers" of the Constitution, he said. "We should be skeptical."

Entertainers who depend on copyright laws to prohibit unfettered, free access to their works advocate for strict enforcement that has become accepted in many parts of American society, whereas reform advocates desire little or no copyright protection, which Lessig said could serve as a disincentive to artists fearful that their work would be copied without credit.

Lessig, founder of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society and chair of the Creative Commons project, pushed for a middle ground between these two extreme views of copyright policy.

Copyright’s role in higher education has garnered much attention in recent years as Google announced plans to digitize 18 million books, most of them out of print.

Google’s proposed settlement with groups representing U.S. authors and publishers would allow the internet’s search leader to act as its partners’ sales agent. The nonexclusive arrangement has raised fears that Google–already the owner of the internet’s most powerful advertising network–could emerge as the ringleader of a literary cartel that wields too much control over the prices of digital books.

Those worries prompted the U.S. Justice Department to open an inquiry into whether Google’s book deal would violate U.S. laws set up to prevent predatory pricing and promote competition. As a result of these concerns, Google is working on a revised settlement agreement that satisfies critics.

Google’s ambition to run the world’s digital library also is raising questions about how much data the company intends to collect about what people are reading and what it intends to do with the information.

Google would turn over most of the revenue from its digital book sales to the participating authors and publishers, just one of the many benefits the company is touting.

More than 10 million books already have been scanned into Google’s electronic index since 2004. The settlement would clear the legal hurdles that have been preventing Google from stockpiling millions of copyrighted books that are out of print. Because those books are scattered in the different libraries across the nation, they’re inaccessible to most people.

Academia’s embrace of the entertainment industry model of copyright law recently prevented Lessig from accessing critical–perhaps even life-saving–information online, he said. Just days after his daughter was born in early September with what doctors suspected could be jaundice, Lessig researched the condition online and found an informative article on the American Academy of Family Physicians web site.

Lessig read the peer-reviewed journal article as he went to the hospital with his newborn daughter. The article stopped abruptly, Lessig said, because the author had not granted "rights to reproduce [the article] in electronic media."

"I thought, ‘This is astonishing,’" he said. "This is a scientific journal talking about a matter of health and science. That they would have already built into their system a way to control whether I get access to … the critical [paragraph] that I need to see to have some confidence to see where my daughter sat on this fearful scale is extraordinary."
Lessig added: "Who would think of building and deploying such a system? Is the proprietary model here one that makes sense?"

Some universities have strayed from the more business-oriented view of copyright policy. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faculty voted unanimously March 18 to make the school’s scholarly research available for free on the internet (see story), joining other noted universities that hope to encourage more scholarship and expand researchers’ audiences.

MIT’s approval of open access was driven partly by the rising cost of scholarly journals. In recent years, even the richest American universities have cut back on journal subscriptions that can cost as much as $20,000 annually, open-access experts said.

MIT joins about 30 universities and colleges–including Harvard, Stanford, and Boston universities–that have approved some form of open-access model, said Peter Suber, an open-access advocate and national expert. MIT will institute open access university-wide, joining Boston University as two of the only schools to take that approach. Other campuses have implemented open access one department at a time.

"It just seems obvious to me that the way you support the progress of scholarship is that you make your works available as widely as possible," said Hal Abelson, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at MIT who formed an open-access committee last year.

Lessig implored educators and IT officials gathered at EDUCAUSE to join copyright reform groups as a way of showing popular support for greater access to scholarly works.

Restrictive copyright policies are "destructive of science and education," he said. "You have an obligation to protect science and education, and you need to do better in the act of protecting these important domains of culture."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

2009 EDUCAUSE conference

Lawrence Lessig’s blog


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