Worlds of Education

The Copyright Experience of the University of the South Pacific: a Union Perspective

published 24 November 2022 updated 24 November 2022
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Legislation is meant not only to protect but to bring equity. And copyright legislation is not meant to be any different. However, the reality on the ground in a developing country like Fiji has only reinforced the inequity of access to and, more importantly, the use of information for learning and teaching and research for libraries and educational institutions. The pandemic exacerbated the situation!

Entry and progress in the world of higher education `assumes’ a certain level of understanding of Intellectual Property (IP) issues and, in this instance, especially copyright.

In my capacity and experience as a librarian at the University of the South Pacific (USP), this assumption is a fallacy and, even dangerous given the implications of non-compliance with national and international copyright legislation. In comparison to the Australian education system where copyright and referencing are introduced mid primary school as I observed when my 8 year old niece visited some 20 years ago bringing with her, school work on this very issue, my general observation in Fiji and the region is that primary and secondary (high) school reference to IP and copyright is either non-existent or minimal and largely dependent on the initiative of the teacher, as opposed to via the curriculum.

An outdated and inadequate copyright legislation for Fiji education

The Government of Fiji is focusing on technological access for the nation, but there is not the same emphasis on the use of information under a general right to information approach. In fact, in comparison to other countries worldwide, Fiji has one of the most outdated and restrictive laws where basic teaching activities, such as showing a YouTube video in an online class or posting an article on a university platform, are illegal. In such instances, teachers, have to either forego the use of information thus depriving students of knowledge or disregard copyright legislation, exposing themselves to possible legal consequences.

The Fiji Copyright Act (1999) was the outcome of the Fiji Law Reform Commission that was developed in consultation and collaboration with national and regional tertiary institutions in Fiji, the Fiji National Archives and the Fiji Museum, the Ministry of Education and other relevant ministries and NGOs, under guidance of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

My observation of this exercise was that the intention was excellent and the consultations strong, but too few suggestions by public interest stakeholders such as education unions were taken into consideration in the final legislation. I did not believe that the outcome truly addressed Fiji’s dependency on externally published works, nor offered solutions to the dearth of writing and publishing by local authors or contributed to overcoming the lack of understanding of copyright per se. The outcome was more of a `one-size fits all’ approach, promoting commercial rather than public interests for accessing information and favouring developed nations where the `ability to pay’ for information was way beyond that of the capacity of the Fijian government and education institutions in the post-colonial period.

Proposed solutions in education focused on the right to `apply for exemption’ from copyright restrictions for using materials for teaching and research. For teachers and lecturers who were already pressured with work, time, and money, it was not a solution. In the pandemic, this was certainly a challenge. Fortunately for USP, online learning and teaching is a norm. Nevertheless, full online teaching in the pandemic was stressful and doing so without having legal security to use materials for teaching increased the stress teachers experience.

The discussions on copyright related to the protection of traditional knowledge (TK) that gave rise to sui generis legislation on TK which was positive.

Challenges facing Fijian education communities must be addressed

The USP has taken a lead role in IP and copyright awareness with the Library and the Centre for Flexible Learning websites informing the university community of how to work and manage copyright but its approach is more about protecting the staff members, students, and the University.

Reactions by library users to copyright clearance is either ` Yes, I agree and understand and will follow due process to obtain clearance’ or ` this is too complicated, I will look for something else’. The concern is one of quality in the second response.

Requests were made in the consultations with WIPO in the 1990s for special considerations as a developing country but this did not eventuate. It was always about `seeking special clearance’. We were asking for greater flexibility for all levels of education but this was not forthcoming.

The challenges for information use by teachers reaffirm the need for national and international legal frameworks that recognize that the playing field for creators of academic works is not level. Levelling it requires a realistic assessment of the needs of education in regions such as the Blue Pacific for a use for development perspective without the domination of economic and commercial aspects, as hard that this may be.

The crucial role of unions

The importance of teacher unions playing a role cannot be underestimated given their large membership and expertise in teaching and research. Evidence-based research is the best means to convince relevant international organizations and the Association of USP Staff (AUSPS) is well placed to make a difference within the education sector and beyond.

The staff of the AUSPS is involved in a qualitative research project funded by EI and led by the University of Waikato on ` Access and use of teaching materials from a copyright perspective in Fiji and the Philippines’. The purpose of the research is to contribute the perspectives of teachers on the issue of copyright in the hope that this will bring about reform. The unions of educational institutions are well-placed to support such research and the focus groups selected for the project will be participants in early-childhood, primary, high school and tertiary institutions.

The Association of USP Staff discussed this issue at the 9th Educational International Asia-Pacific Regional Conference, last month. We will seek a review of the Fiji Copyright Act (1999) by the Fiji Law Reform Commission at the Council of Pacific Educators Meetings after the national elections 2022 and support efforts by Education International and the recently launched Access to Knowledge Coalition to promote international reforms at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) that promote equity and quality in teaching.

Only by action can unions make a difference for equitable access to and use of information.

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