May the copyright be with you

Siyavula is a project focused on the development of educational materials. These materials will ultimately be hosted on a website with the primary authors being teachers. The question needs to be asked (and answered) as to who will (or should) own the copyright to the material on the website? Some initial thoughts relating to this question are below although every time I discuss it I want to explain it completely differently so expect many follow-up postings!

Before getting to the copyright issue I'd like to talk about empowerment. For me, a simple definition of empowerment is the freedom and capacity to make decisions and implement them. Empowerment seems to come up quite often in our sector with many projects assuring all and sundry that they will empower teachers. Empowerment in the context of materials development means, IMHO, having the freedom and the right to decide what, when, where, how and by whom your material is used and having the capacity to act on those decisions.

The right to make such decisions for material is bestowed on the copyright holder. South Africa is a signatory of the Berne Convention (Wikipedia Ref - use at your own risk ;) which means that ownership of the copyright for a piece of material is bestowed upon the author of the material automatically. All they have to do is engage in the process of penning the original work.

This means that that teachers own the copyright to any / all teaching resources they have developed themselves, not copied or derived from someone else's work.

Siyavula is often, and will for the foreseeable future, be compared to the publishing industry. As I have pointed out previously, this is not entirely fair but something we are quite happy to respond to. Teachers have been exposed to the publishing industry and so it is a nice counter-point for explaining our decisions and rationales.

When authors write for a publisher, and I am generalising here, the contracts they sign contain language which means that the publisher:

  • either takes over the copyright to the material or has an exclusive licence to use the material
  • can dictate how that material is used, sold, marketed and delivered
  • pays the author some royalty which is derived from the publishers ability to market the product

Simply, the author relinquishes their control over the material and the decisions made around that material. I see this as not particularly empowering for the authors but, if the financial rewards are good enough, perhaps it is ok.

For Siyavula we have a couple of possible scenarios, with some permutations with finer structure being possible of course:

  • we could ask that the copyright for any material uploaded is ceded to the project or that we have exclusive rights to the material just like a publisher would
  • we can allow the uploaded material to remain the copyright property of the author who grants us a non-exclusive licence to reproduce the material under the site copyright licence (one that allows sharing :)

We prefer the second option as this guarantees that we cannot abuse our position:

  • we cannot change the copyright licence without the authors' permission
  • we cannot make deals with publishers to licence the material under a closed licence
  • we cannot dictate usage of the material

and, by so doing, we empower the authors because they can

  • now retain the real ownership to their material, but the copy that they shared via Siyavula will always be available under the original site licence
  • change the copyright licence of their material, but the copy that they shared via Siyavula will always be available under the original site licence
  • they can make deals with publishers to release their material under a closed licence, but the copy they shared via Siyavula will always be available under the original site licence

Allowing authors to retain the copyright for their work gives them a vested interest and a sense of ownership. If we insisted on taking control of the copyright ourselves, with some agenda around controlling its use especially for financial gain, I think that it would be contrary to the spirit of open sharing and community we are trying to foster.

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