Patents vs. 18th Century Satire: Which Will Do More to Protect Copyrights at the University Level?

Patents vs. 18th Century Satire: Which Will Do More to Protect Copyrights at the University Level?

In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, in which he suggested that the impoverished Irish would benefit from selling their children as food to the rich. As Swift wrote:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.

Such a dire solution is purely satirical, but in recent months, colleges have found themselves on the cusp of their own "Modest Proposal." In February, I discussed UC Berkeley's policy forbidding note-sharing as a protection of instructor copyrights. I also discussed the University of Louisiana's intellectual property policy, which can be read as giving the University a stake in royalties - up to 60% -- from faculty books and artistic works. Now, there's a new anti-piracy patent that's meant to prevent students from sharing textbooks.

Patent US8195571B2The patent, US8195571B2, is entitled, Web-based system and method to capture and distribute royalties for access to copyrighted academic texts by preventing unauthorized access to discussion boards associated with copyrighted academic texts. The Description states:

In the modern world and current technology, it is possible to scan a document or a piece of text, such as a textbook. Unfortunately, the incidence of piracy of text or textbooks rises as the costs of scanning declines.

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Professors are increasingly turning a blind eye when students appear in class with photocopied pages. Others facilitate piracy by placing texts in the library reserve where they can be photocopied. ... [P]rofessors as well as authors and publishers need a system and method to combat piracy which becomes more rampant as the technology to scan and make unauthorized copies of pieces of text, such as academic textbooks, becomes more readily available and less expensive.

The preventative system and method integrates licenses, discussion boards, and grade content into a web-based system "that aligns the interests of teaching professionals, students, and publishers while also enhancing the overarching academic mission to create and disseminate knowledge." In the spirit of teamwork, the system brings "together a plurality of participants in a cooperative manner to achieve the goal of preventing unauthorized copying of academic texts wherein the incentives of each participant is aligned. The participants may include one or more students, one or more teachers/professors, one or more publishers, one or more authors and one or more beneficiaries including any intellectual property holders."

In more simple terms, US8195571B2 requires student participation in a web-based discussion board. The board activity counts toward final grades, but to gain access, students need a special code, which they get by buying the associated textbook.

It's hard to say if this is good for copyrights at the university level. Some will argue that in the internet age, academic knowledge should no longer be restricted at the expense of open access. Others will argue that forcing textbook purchases is injurious to low income students. If the current solutions are challenged, universities might have to become more inventive; i.e., move themselves closer toward a Swiftian-solution. If restrictive patents and draconian policies won't keep copyrights safe, maybe universities will start breaking fingers to prevent scanning, keyboarding and note taking. Think Stephen King's Quitters, Inc., in which the main character was motivated to quit smoking by threats of bodily harm. If it worked for a fictional smoker, then universities might think "why not" for their very real college students. 

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