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USAf’s position on Bill in line with its mission

 

 

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Universities South Africa (USAf) read with some disbelief “Fringe views replace universities’ position on the Copyright Amendment Bill’’ by André Myburgh and the allegations made in it.

The article fails completely to locate USAf’s position on the Copyright Amendment Bill within an understanding of the purpose of South Africa’s 26 public universities and their location within the national system of innovation and in the global knowledge system. Further, there are too many inaccuracies in this article to address them all, but I will focus on a few of them.

As Myburgh points out, USAf seeks to promote optimum conditions for universities to thrive in South Africa and in the world. The university system produces more than 220 000 graduates a year and produced about 25 000 peer-reviewed research articles in 2018, the latter a rapid growth since 2010.

This requires a constant and continuous focus on building a culture of ethical integrity in research, teaching and learning. It would be foolish for USAf to undermine the integrity of the system. A number of large projects focus specifically on ensuring that there is a national approach to this.

Myburgh expresses concern that USAf’s support for the Copyright Amendment Bill undermines and erodes the attribution of authorship. This is one simple but critically important element of the continuing project of building a university system with integrity. To imagine that USAf would encourage a degradation of this principle is simply to misunderstand its purpose as a collective of higher education institutions.

Myburgh goes on to claim that the Copyright Amendment Bill would promote plagiarism. USAf supports the Bill precisely because it does not authorise plagiarism. The idea contained in the Copyright Amendment Bill, as Myburgh points out, is that the proposed quotation right requires attribution to the author “to the extent practicable”. This simply does not authorise plagiarism. It requires attribution.

Myburgh further claims USAf did not consult every one of its members. This is true only in the sense that universities are complex structures with multiple voices within them. At a single institution there could be strong supporters and strong detractors of any new policy.

There were vigorous responses against the position adopted by USAf from two commercial units at universities, one from a university press and one from a deputy vice-chancellor who indicated the need for further debate. Myburgh refers too to the “completely different” submission made by the research chair of law, society and technology at Unisa.

This isn’t a contradiction. Although the research chair was at the time a staff member of a member institution of USAf, she was also an executive board member of the Dramatic, Artistic and Literary Rights Organisation, with a direct interest in this matter.

We are aware of other submissions too by academics and administrators in opposition to the Bill, but, as has been pointed out above, these are not institutional or sectoral positions. USAf does not require every member of staff of its member institutions to share the same views. This is simply in the nature of the university as a social institution.

We have agreed that there ought to be further discussion, probably to be led by USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group, which will probably focus on the existential tension between the public good function of universities and their commercial activities, which need not be in conflict with each other.

USAf does not agree with Myburgh and others that the Bill’s educational exceptions will destroy academic publishing, as I made clear to the publishing industry whenever I had the opportunity to meet with them.

Universities in South Africa pay more than 10 times as much for course-pack licences as their university presses gain in licensing revenue from course packs. If the Bill were passed, and assuming that all course-pack licensing ceased — which we do not agree the Bill requires — then universities would have millions of extra rands they could reinvest in scholarly publishing and access. This would benefit, not harm, universities and their researchers, presses and students.

The fair-use elements of the Copyright Amendment Bill, which are supported by USAf, refer to the existence of very specific conditions and will not give rise to a free-for-all situation. USAf’s position displays no intention to undermine the publishing industry — only to ensure that it is increasingly responsive to the challenges of our society and the role universities play in it, where this is possible.

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Ahmed Bawa
Guest Author

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