Picture: 123RF/MAKSYM CHORNII
Picture: 123RF/MAKSYM CHORNII

Authors write to be read. They support the free flow of information. That does not mean they will necessarily support the flow of their work for free, because authors, like everyone else, like to be paid for their labour.

While claiming “creators’ rights”, ReCreate campaigns, with Google’s support, for unlicensed usage of creators’ works (“Copyright bill gives SA creators their due”, July 15). In reality, this will prevent creators from enforcing their rights and will remove creators’ ability to be remunerated for their work.

In law, the devil is in the detail, but for those pushing for the president’s signature to the Copyright Amendment Bill the detail is absent. In law, precision is key. The 1978 Copyright Act needs updating for the digital era, but appropriately so.

What is needed to update the Copyright Act? Does it need to be “decolonised” or must it enable SA’s creative sector to thrive in the 21st century? Is the bill “decolonising” SA’s copyright, or is it actually undermining SA creators and relegating SA educational institutions to mere recipients of “free” information from the North? Should our copyright law not rather empower SA creators to make their voice heard here and worldwide?

One of the main issues for the authors and publishers of literary works is the bill’s version of a “fair use” provision that justifies actions that would otherwise infringe copyright, and its extensive set of copyright exceptions that place educational institutions, libraries and the government in a privileged position for expropriative unlicensed uses of creators’ works.

ReCreate activist supporters of the bill, originally advancing “fair use” and the copyright exceptions as “users’ rights”, have changed their argument, now saying that these provisions benefit creators. They seem to be changing tack again, with a new argument that copyright should somehow be “decolonised”.

A closer examination of the rights of “recreation” ReCreate envisages in its support of the Copyright Amendment Bill is no more than a cut and paste culture. When an author’s work is “recreated” in this way she becomes a mere content provider for someone else’s creation, for which the recreator can take credit. When her work is copied or adapted into a new work,  the original author might not even be identified or cited.

A cut and paste culture in academia, with no guarantee that the original author will be credited, will affect the original author’s university’s performance assessment, which requires measurable outputs. The promised savings will be minimal and unlikely to be passed on to students. Computers, software licences and taxes cost universities much more than books and copyright licences.

On the other hand, research funding will be directly affected. The subscription-driven reader-pays model will decline, and economies of scale stretched across tens of thousands of subscribing libraries and millions of readers will be replaced with an author-pays model.  Hefty article processing charges for authors and their institutions will be instituted as publishers will no longer assume the risks of publishing. Fewer authors will be able to access funding for these costs, bearing in mind the limited number of donors.

ReCreate’s arguments for free reuses of copyright material in tertiary education do not explain its support for the whole of the bill.  The “fair use” provision and copyright exceptions are also intended to work outside the educational field, for example enabling multinational search engines and social media platforms to disseminate copyright works with no permission or remuneration, and allowing the government to make free use of copyright works. One can only deduce that ReCreate has another agenda — one that is not intended to benefit tertiary education.

Publishing organisations have cautioned against publishers being punished to achieve other political objectives, like the balancing of university budget shortfalls. But to their dismay economic impact studies quantifying the loss to authors and publishers as a result of the Copyright Amendment Bill have simply been brushed aside. The publishing sector should be strengthened, not weakened, and the integrity of academic research valorised by enhancing protected local content. 

The bill was intended to benefit SA authors of educational and academic works but instead it will cut them off from their income, resulting in a disincentive to create educational works in SA. Killing the publishing industry and the transactional nature of intellectual property in favour of an extreme legislative approach to “fair use”  and copyright exceptions will reduce local knowledge production and increase reliance on foreign knowledge, thus facilitating intellectual recolonisation.

International textbooks lack the specificity of the local — historical, cultural and social — and that often conflicts with students’ experience in their lives and environments. In that sense, the demise of academic and educational publishing will lead to the recolonisation of teaching and learning. Following the activist siren song of “decolonising copyright” will instead result in education being recolonised.

• Prof Tomaselli is a researcher in cultural and media studies at the University of Johannesburg.