Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Copyright, Universities, Course Content

There are a few issues where a university’s claimed copyright create barriers to students with disabilities. As a New Zealand student myself, I was refused course material in electronic format. Today, I heard that some United Kingdom universities refuse to allow students to do audio recording of the lectures because of "copyright".

Alternative Format For Course Material

During the admission process, I specifically requested to receive course material in electronic format. This request was made because the binders usualy provided are big, heavy and bulky – it is difficult and painful for me to handle those due to arthritis. I pointed out I did not expect books to be made into electronic versions – that would probably not fall within the realm of "reasonable accommodation". Despite being told this would not be a problem, it took 8 months of study, and a formal complaint, before anything happened.

During the complaint meeting, I was informed that providing the course material in electronic format was not possible because of copyright concerns.

IANAL, but it seemed to me that as they were providing the course material in one format already, copyright didn’t come into play. Unless they thought I was going to use the electronic format to redistribute the work. This implied an assumption that I, as a student, would do wrong. It showed a lack of trust which was not pleasant. In the end, my logic seemed to have made sense because the university provided some of the material in alternative formats.

Recording of Lectures Breaches Copyright?

Reading my Twitter stream today, I saw a tweet from z_rose that I found puzzling:

Let’s push copyright in lectures one step up. Would it be ok to provide a service that allowed recording in lectures if getting

permission from the lecturer was in the TOS/had to be got for each lecture? Ethically and legally. (source 1source 2)

As I remembered many students using their MP3 recorders to record lectures here in New Zealand, this got me curious. Obviously the university I attend as a student is concerned by copyright, as I experienced with my request for alternative formats. Yet there didn’t appear to be an issue with students recording lectures.

z_rose pointed me to a most interesting page from the UK’s SKILL Bureau for Students with Disabilities dating back to 2007: Guidance on intellectual property and recording of lectures. The page describes how some lecturers are causing problems for students recording lectures.

[Students with disabilities] were being prevented from recording lectures by some lecturers who felt that their intellectual copyright was being breached by the recording of their lecture. Increasing numbers of lecturers had also contacted NATFHE [lecturers’ union] to seek advice on what their rights were when their lectures were recorded and whether copyright law took precedent over the [UK] Disability Discrimination Act. In all cases, any handouts etc given out in the lectures remained the copyright of the institution concerned and, therefore, the issue was around what the lecturer actually said during the lecture.

Some of the complaints from the lecturers included fears that having the material on "tape" would allow students to plagiarise the material more easily. Other fears included being quoted out of context. These seem to be fears about innapropriate use of the material, rather than the intended use – allowing the student to study. DStev tweeted something echoing my thoughts on this:

"The threat to the professor/university comes when the content can be accessed outside of their own dissimination of it".

SKILL’s solution makes sense:

in order to facilitate equality of access to oral lectures for all students, Skill, the Disability Rights Commission and NATFHE produced joint guidance, which set out an approach to enable students to access their learning and teaching in the most appropriate way whilst maintaining existing protections in terms of the intellectual property rights of academic staff. Students would be encouraged to talk to their disability adviser about their learning needs and their need to record lectures. Lecturing staff would be informed who in their lecture was recording their lectures, but not the reasons why unless the student gave specific permission for such information to be divulged. Thus, the students’ confidentiality was protected as was the lecturers’ intellectual property rights.

This was a 2007 recommendation. Have things improved? I don’t imagine so since there is talk about these issues 3 years later. It seems like, once again, "copyright" gets in the way of accessibility. I don’t like that students with disabilities can’t get simple accommodations because of concerns they might use the content innapropriately.

One thought on “Copyright, Universities, Course Content

  1. Hiya – @z_rose here, the person who kicked the whole thing off.

    It seems to me that there’s actually a schism at the heart of copyright in lecture content. It goes like this:

    1. The point of lectures is to communicate information to a large group of people

    2. The thing that lecturers want least is to communicate information to a large group of people

    The difference between the two is what constitutes the ‘group’ – in 1, it’s students, in 2, it’s everybody. The only truly efficient (current) mechanism for identifying students is ‘people who are physically in the room when I talk’, which is basically not good enough because it doesn’t accommodate the bits of the lecture that aren’t talking – handouts, slides, reading lists.

    When it comes to the handouts/slides/reading lists, there’s no group identification mechanism, so the lecturer relies on making accessing the content really, really annoying. Physically picking up printed copies of notes at the door of the lecture theatre, for example.

    Making access annoying is exactly the opposite of making access accessible.

    This is not a surface level problem – it’s in the roots. I’m not at all sure what can be done to fix it, but if it does get fixed, it will have to be in the roots too.

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