Tuesday, June 03, 2014

UBC accused of trying to appropriate intellectual property... by its own faculty

A while back, I pointed out why I thought college and university instructors should be very worried about their administrations' increasing insistence on free copying to keep down their (already small) materials budgets. In my opinion, faculty are being left in the legal wind, forced to follow copying guidelines that have no real legal foundation.

Earlier than that, I noted that the Supreme Court of Canada seemed to have drastically reduced the concept of "teaching". Whereas we previously understood that a teacher was a highly trained professional who combined a thoughtful pedagogy, advanced empathy, an impressive work ethic and an abundance of volunteering, the SCC seemingly reduced the profession to s/he who hands out copies of written material to students. I warned that this looked to me like a gloomy portent for teachers going forward, especially in contract negotiation. The Supreme Court washed the instruction part right out of the profession of teaching, as well as the individualism.

It is a commonly understood trait of chickens that they do come home to roost, and it sure looks like the chickens of free culture are no longer satisfied with what they can peck from writers outside the academy. They are roosting, and pecking, on faculty. Last October, the University of British Columbia Faculty Association sent an e-mail to the university's legal counsel expressing deep concern about a new policy mandating that faculty share their personal intellectual property with the wider university community.
"...we strongly object to any policy that mandates, overtly or by inference, that faculty provide others, including the University itself, open access to their intellectual property. Such a policy is not only contrary to the fundamental tenets of the academy, but it is an attack on academic freedom and the legal and customary control faculty members have over the fruits of their intellectual labour."
That is a beautifully written objection. I agree with it wholeheartedly. The UBCFA further argues that the pressure to give up their IP rights may actually "lead to less sharing and innovation" by faculty. Again, I agree, and I imagine most if not all professional writers in Canada would as well, whether they are connected to a university or not.

The UBCFA went so far as to file a grievance on the issue, and to send notice to the administration that, pending the outcome of the grievance, "Teaching Materials may not be used by the University or by other UBC Instructors as contemplated in Policy 81, in the absence of express permission from individual faculty members to do so." The administration was quick to flatly deny the UBCFA this demand.

Coming to the defence of its members at UBC, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) sent a strongly worded notice to UBC President Stephen J. Toope that CAUT intends to "censure the University of British Columbia at its next meeting in November 2014" unless UBC stops appropriating faculty intellectual property.

I have no idea what is entailed in an official censure of a university by the CAUT, but it doesn't sound pleasant. On the other hand, this is where this whole story gets weird for me. I have always believed writers and teachers (and students and librarians) are actually on the same side in intellectual property disputes with educational institutions. IP rights are the individual rights of everyone, and when one group's IP is appropriated, everyone's is. But that has not always been the opinion of the good folks at CAUT.

When Access Copyright launched its entirely justifiable lawsuit against York University, claiming York had overstepped with claims of fair dealing for massive, industrial, course pack copying of writers' work, CAUT was one of the first groups out of the gate to denounce the legal action, calling it "hopeless" and insisting that collective licensing (which is essentially a legal sibling to the collective bargaining teachers' unions do) is "obsolete."

That CAUT is now insisting on protecting the intellectual property rights of its members (many of whom are also Canadian authors whose non-academic work continues to be appropriated by fair dealing overreach) seems strangely inconsistent. Only some of their members' intellectual property rights are worth protecting?

I believe all of their rights are worth protecting, as does The Writers' Union of Canada, which has always publicly supported teachers, librarians and students in their own disputes with administration. Whenever I speak with groups of individual instructors, students or library workers, they completely agree that IP rights are tied to employment and fair pay rights. I'm going to take it as a hopeful sign that the teaching associations seem to be coming around on that point as well.

(image courtesy the UBCFA website)

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Heather Kellerhals said...

Well said John, just read your blog after the Writer's Union AGM

John said...

Thanks, Heather.

And, just a reminder to others who may be trying to comment. I don't publish anonymous comments.