UK United Kingdom

Universities seek copyright law reform to enable MOOCs

Law reform is required to support innovation and enable Australian universities to compete with the rest of the world in…

Law reform is required to ensure Australian universities remain competitive say educators. Fernando Stankuns

Law reform is required to support innovation and enable Australian universities to compete with the rest of the world in online education, say leading Australian educators.

In their submissions to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of copyright legislation, both Universities Australia and the University of Sydney argue the Copyright Act is holding back innovation in the tertiary education sector.

The sector is particularly concerned that current “fair dealing” provisions in the Copyright Act do not support the use of copyrighted material in the delivery of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

“The University supports copyright law reform that will foster new and innovative ways of providing education to a wider audience,” wrote University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence in the university’s submission to the review.

“Of particular concern are the communication limits that restrict the ability to teach our students in a way that is fair in other jurisdictions,” Dr Spence wrote.

Currently if a university faculty wishes to make a reasonable portion of a published work available online it can only do so if no other faculty has made part of the same work available.

“Such limitations make no sense today and impede the effective delivery of course materials to our students,” Dr Spence wrote.

In its submission to the ALRC, Universities Australia says despite Australian universities paying more than $200 million a year to commercial publishers for access to academic journals, and $30 million for content delivery under statutory licences, none of this content can currently be used to deliver MOOCs.

This leaves Australian universities only able to offer course material developed within the university, putting them behind their US competitors that are able to include third-party content under fair use provisions of the US Copyright Act.

As a result, the perception that a MOOC is just a cut down version of an existing course is only likely to be magnified in Australia, said Derek Whitehead, university copyright officer at Swinburne University of Technology, and chair of the Australian Digital Alliance.

And the existing exceptions in the Australian Copyright Act do little to help.

“The list of specific exceptions in Australian copyright legislation is over 10 pages long. We have specific exceptions for specific cases and it’s nowhere near as flexible as the US system,” Mr Whitehead said.

The education sector is now likely to face a stand-off with copyright owners as the ALRC gets closer to delivering its recommendations to the government in November.

“There is a broad group loosely in favour of introducing a broad fair use exception into Australian copyright law”, Mr Whitehead said. “The Australian Digital Alliance, the education industry and the big internet companies are all loosely in favour of a fair use exception, as are others.”

However those with major interests in copyright ownership may see it differently.

“Even though copyright owner interests are often based in the US, they’re not necessarily in favour of extending fair use regimes to other countries,” Mr Whitehead said.

Deakin University is one institution currently working within the bounds of the Australian Copyright Act as it develops a range of MOOCs

“At present most content is directed at enrolled students who have a clear university affiliation. This means the content created in a course/unit is controlled, usually through a learning management system,” said Deakin University Vice-Chancellor Jane den Hollander.

“A difficulty may arise when universities create a MOOC by opening to the public a course or unit that was previously only intended for a closed group of students who would be the intended users of any intended content, including that provided under licence.”

Professor den Hollander said Deakin is planning to create a new MOOC that has as an original intent exposure to anyone who wishes to do it, not just fee paying Deakin enrolled students.

“This means working from within the limitation of the Act from the start and of course using open educational resources wherever possible, as well as generating our own materials for which we own the copyright.”

The University of Melbourne already offers a small number of MOOCs via Coursera.

To do so, the university uses content that it has created as well as open licensed content, such as Creative Commons material, or material for which it has obtained a license.

However Helen Thomson, manager of the University Copyright Office, said the statutory licences the university would normally rely on to use third party content do not apply to MOOCs, so it has had to find alternatives.

“Obtaining individual licenses for content is resource intensive and time consuming so it is not effective when dealing with large amounts of content,” Ms Thomson said.

She added that the university would like to see more flexibility in the Copyright Act, with current Australian copyright law meaning Australia ran the risk of being one step behind when adopting and using innovative new technologies.

“The flexibility of fair use means the US can more easily take advantage of new opportunities to deliver online content.”

Join the conversation

10 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Smithers

    logged in via Twitter

    It seems to me that Australian universities rely on third party content as 'essential' components of their courses far more than is the case in comparable countries.

    I'm not quite sure what happened to the idea that courses were developed by subject matter experts within the university itself. Furthermore we're in this situation because academic staff have consistently ignored their copyright obligations (most are uninformed) and thought they could get away with it because their courses were closed…

    Read more
    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Mark Smithers

      Different people and bodies have different understandings and motives, but I understood the whole point of the open x movement (open code, open courseware, open learning, etc) was to encourage people to share their resources so that they didn't have to recreate them anew.

      Furthermore, some advocates of moocs argue that they are the first move from craft to mass produced higher education, thus radically changing its economics. Expecting universities to create all of their own moocs undermines that efficiency.

      However that may be, I don't think there's much in the idea that a university's subjects should be developed completely by their own subject matter experts. At least since the middle ages, university teachers have relied on books by experts from outside their university.

    2. Mark Smithers

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Indeed, the idea is to share but it is also to create and then share or modify and then share. Someone has to create it in the first place. I don't think universities should rely on creating everything in any MOOCs that they provide. I think they should use a healthy mix of open resources and educational resources created by the subject matter experts they employ.

      I didn't say that universities should rely on their SMEs to completely create everything in their courses. It just seems to me that Australian university courses seem to rely on third party material to a much higher degree than courses run at universities in other countries..

    3. Mandy Lupton

      Senior Lecturer in Education at Queensland Univeristy of Technology

      In reply to Mark Smithers

      In terms of accessing third party course 'content', the sticking point for me in considering developing a MOOC is access to journal articles that I might want to set as readings. As the article points out, students must be enrolled at my university to access journal articles our Library's subscription databases. Furthermore, even if the student is enrolled, as the article points out, due to digital copyright restrictions I cannot use a electronic reading that another academic is using for another course run at the same time.

      In terms of writing material myself I am discouraged from writing textbooks due to these not being viewed as research output by the rewards system.

      I applaud the efforts of Universities Australia in seeking to change this situation.

    4. Mark Smithers

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mandy Lupton

      Many journal articles are open access. Do the students absolutely need to access that a particular one that is behind a paywall? If the article is so important to the course and it's behind a paywall then do they actually need to read every bit of the article or can the salient points of article be paraphrased for the student?

      There are many creative ways to handle this situation. Ideally we should aim not perpetuate the rort on the public purse being inflicted by academic journal publishers who restrict access to articles whose research has been funded by the public.

      Many universities already have their own open online repositories that allow links to digital copies by many courses simultaneously (see for example

      I think it would be great if Australian copyright regulations were revised but OU and Uni Syd cannot use it as an excuse for not being able to innovate regarding MOOCs. That's just lazy thinking.

  2. Paul Kniest

    Policy and Research Director at NTEU

    I note with some interest that Australian universities’ attitudes to Intellectual Property (IP), including copyright, differs depending on whether the university is the user of that IP or owner of that IP. In stark contrast to the views expressed in your article, there a number of Australian universities with IP policies that restrict staff from publishing the results of their own research until the university has determined its potential for commercialisation.

    1. Phillip Dawson

      Lecturer in Learning and Teaching at Monash University

      In reply to Paul Kniest

      I agree with your statement here Paul. I'm interested in your thoughts on whether the NTEU is in a similarly conflicted situation as a member of the copyright holder advocacy group the ACC (Australian Copyright Council). The ACC's mission only allows it to advocate on behalf of copyright holders and explicitly excludes advocacy on behalf of copyright users, even though it acknowledges that some of its members are both users and creators of copyright material.

  3. Peter Sommerville

    Scientist & Technologist

    This is all very interesting. An issue that needs to be considered as the technology evolves. What interests me more however is the business case. MOOC's are not cheap to establish and maintain, but consideration of this seems to be lacking in the debate. The fundamental problem, not yet satisfactorily resolved, is how is this going to be financed!

  4. Pera Lozac

    Heat management assistant

    Copyright laws are by their definition their to protect profit and they ALWAYS limit innovation. Sharing is the only way to increase anything - you cannot progress by limiting the knowledge. Sharing the knowledge is the only way.