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Doing right with rights

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If copyright isn't too complicated, then users are happy to comply, discovered John Murphy, when he spoke to the USA-based Copyright Clearance Center

There is pretty much universal agreement that strict copyright laws with vigorous enforcement are necessary in order to have a viable, sustainable industry to circulate information. Authors, editors, publishers, webmasters and printers all need to pay their bills and eat, so they must have a way of collecting fees from those who use their services.

Copyright laws in the USA were greatly strengthened in 1976, leading to concern that two age-old problems with copyright would come to a head.

The first is that most people are quite happy to pay a reasonable fee to use copyright work, but it is not always easy to find out who to pay and how much.

The second problem is that, while most organisations actively encourage their employees or students to respect copyright, the organisation is vicariously responsible for any of its staff who play fast and loose – either through ignorance or misguided attempts to conserve budgets.

The Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) was founded in 1978 by a group of publishers working with some large corporations that expected to be heavy users of copyright text. Its intention is to make it easier to pay for a licence. Collecting voluntary payments effi ciently has, over the years, proved much more effective and raised much more revenue for the industry than enforcement could ever have done. In 2007, for example, CCC distributed $123 million to rights owners.

Publishers, or in some cases authors, register their work and sign a contract containing the rights available and the licence fee. Customers can put the title or ISBN of the text they want into the CCC website and can buy whatever rights they want as easily as buying a book from an online bookseller.

Corporations can also make use of CCC’s Rightsphere package that consolidates all their licences and permissions into a single web interface. Employees can use it as a workfl ow to either establish that they have the rights they require, or automatically link to CCC to purchase additional rights when required.

Recent additional services for rights owners include Rightsconnect, where a publisher can put a button on their website that automatically links to the page where rights can be purchased.

Larger publishers can use the Rightslink package to automate their rights sales in house. This is used by Elsevier, Nature, Springer, and Taylor & Francis among others.

CCC also repatriates royalties from around the world. It has international agreements with similar licensing agencies elsewhere through the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations (IFRRO). The distribution of the annual licences is determined by customer usage surveys and statistical tools.

Bill Burger, vice president of marketing for CCC, said that the organisation aims to be a one-stop shop for content licensing. He said: ‘At the time we were founded, the disruptive technology was the plain paper photocopier. To publishers it was a threat because it allowed people to make copies cheaply. Our first licences were about photocopying because digital content had not been invented then. We have since adapted to digital.’

Annual licences are now favoured

In the early days most of the licences issued were for one-off permissions, but now the majority of business is done with large corporations through annual licensing. CCC has more than 2,600 corporate customers, while annual corporate licences now account for two thirds of its revenue.

‘We sell a licence to a corporation that allows it certain defi ned use rights for all the content in our repertory. It covers all their employees, wherever they may reside. The intention is to make it very easy for organisations to use content without having to go back on a transactional basis every time,’ said Burger.

The pricing depends on the size of the corporation and the industry they are in. For example, the pharmaceutical industry relies heavily on high-priced content while other industries are much lighter users. ‘This repertory licensing structure has a much lower cost structure, so it is good for the publishers and it is hassle-free for our customers,’ he said.

Burger said that the annual licence is priced to be cost-effective against transactional licences – not least because of the administrative saving. But the added advantage is that corporate leaders can rest assured that they are not going to face vicarious risk of prosecution because copyright laws are poorly understood in parts of their organisation.

Academic institutions join licence programme

In 2007 this idea was extended to an academic annual licence – again, for a single annual fee staff in an institution can make use of any content for which CCC holds the agency. More than 30 institutions have already signed up, with more expected to join them.

Burger said: ‘Until recently, the academic business has largely been transactional. People creating “course packs” for students would get a licence to use and buy the rights to particular content; this could be book chapters or journal articles.’

Again, there are areas of poor understanding of copyright law, particularly about what constitutes ‘fair use’ in the educational world. The problem is being made worse by the growth of virtual learning environments or course-specific intranet sites where content is being posted electronically for student use, rather than being copied. Recently, Georgia State University in the USA faced a lawsuit from three major publishers who alleged it was using copyright material online without permission or paying for a licence.

Burger said that CCC has ideas for expanding its business model to cover other copyright material. He said that the music industry was probably not ready for such a service, but there may be other categories of content where it might work.

CCC has been closely following attempts in the US Congress to clear up confusion of so-called ‘orphan copyright’, where material that could be useful lies unread because nobody knows or can find who owns the rights to it. One idea in circulation is the collection of a fee which is then placed in a trust fund that could be made available to a proprietor when they are discovered or eventually used for some charitable purpose. Whatever the outcome of that debate, the CCC experience has shown that, when it is made easy to do the right thing, the vast majority of people are happy to do so.