Worlds of Education

Photo: Aaron Burden/Unsplash
Photo: Aaron Burden/Unsplash

Right to authorship, by Yamile Socolovsky

published 26 September 2019 updated 26 September 2019
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Education International's decision to encourage discussion of an International Treaty concerning the exceptions and limitations to copyright for educational and research activities is both timely and necessary. The obstacles imposed on these activities by the excessively restrictive regulations in this area become remarkably difficult to overcome in the current context, because one aspect of the commercialisation of education and research involves the commercialisation of intellectual and artistic production, which represents a source of profit for an increasingly concentrated business sector.

In most Latin American countries, restrictions on the use of copyrighted works make illegal most of the uses required for teaching and research, as well as for the preservation and dissemination of the cultural heritage of nations and humanity. Playing a film in class, sharing a copy of a text with students or colleagues, copying a unique work stored in a library or archive, or translating an article originally written in a foreign language to quote it in an exam are all common practices used in teaching, study, and research, yet they are not recognised by the laws of most of our countries.

In the case of Argentina, whose legislation dates back to 1933, the regulations, which give rise to absurd exceptions and limitations, are foreseeably insufficient with regard to the conditions of digitisation that today allow for the preservation, storage, exchange and access of publications and information. However, it is a mistake to believe that out-of-date regulations can be remedied by simply reforming national laws, because now, more than ever, much of the production and use of resources for education and research purposes takes place across borders. Paradoxically, in this regard, the business sector resorts to misleading claims to national regulatory sovereignty, with the sole purpose of preserving the conditions necessary for the globalisation of its businesses. On the contrary, we must regulate exceptions to non-profit uses at the international level in order to prevent companies from determining the method of circulation and opportunities for accessing resources on the basis of the means of payment available to individuals, institutions and States.

It is often claimed that such exceptions and limitations would violate the individual rights of authors who rightfully seek to have their efforts and creativity not merely recognised but also remunerated. This assertion is false, because it is not a question of ignoring authorship, nor the acquired rights of creators, including the right to commercialise their work and use it as a source of personal income. It is simply a question of establishing limitations that strike a balance with other rights that may prevail, such as access to education, knowledge, culture and information.

But it is also worth asking what authors want and who represents them. Because those who speak in their name are often companies that do business by reserving the patrimonial rights of creators, even dispossessing those who produced the work of their freedom to share it outside the commercial circuit. In the academic world, this same logic has led to a scandalous situation, in which the findings of research carried out in public institutions by professionals educated in these institutions are only published, or only accessible for reading, if the person writing or reading pays a fee. This cost is usually covered by the institutions themselves or by the governments, which end up financing the profits generated by some publishers on the basis of the intellectual effort of researchers, as well as taking advantage of the economic efforts of society that sustain those institutions through taxes.

The commercialisation of human creation, which can only become a source of private profit by expropriating its enjoyment from the rest of humanity, has two complementary and negative aspects from the perspective of those of us who understand that the social right to education and culture requires universal access to and enjoyment of a type of production that should be considered a shared public good. First, it presupposes the exclusion of those social sectors that do not possess the necessary economic resources to connect to the circuits that would enable them to share in said production. Second, the inclusion of cultural production in the process of capitalist accumulation at the global level subjects this dimension of human activity to the same rules as the overall production and distribution of goods in general. When it comes to knowledge and culture, the combined and unequal distribution of functions, positions and opportunities among the different regions and countries is not only a mechanism for the appropriation of wealth, but also a means of reinforcing the hegemony of certain nations over the rest. Thus, commercialisation excludes, alienates, deepens inequalities and updates contemporary patterns of cultural colonisation.

As such, this initiative will contribute to the democratisation of knowledge and the conditions for participation in the cultural development of society, as the definition of these exceptions and limitations could favour a very different circulation of resources and information relevant to education and research, freeing them from restrictions that are ultimately only based on commercial interest. Education unions have an undeniable obligation here: we represent those who, as teaching and research staff, are also authors and providers of access to socially necessary intellectual production. And we demand the right to education and knowledge, as well as the right of everyone to be the creators of humankind’s legacy.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.