Wednesday 4 January 2012

Open letter to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing

To Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing

Dear Ms Sturgeon, 
As the previous Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland, I wish to draw your attention urgently to a matter that harms both patients and writers.

Until recently, the NHS Scotland held a copyright licence, enabling staff to photocopy important information and writers to earn income from their work as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without this licence, staff are forbidden from copying any written information. If they do, they are both breaking the law and depriving writers of rightful income.

Now, we hear that the NHS is not renewing its licence.

You may think that all authors are wealthy. This is very far from the case. In 2005, the evidence taken by the Society of Authors showed that, for example, over two thirds of professional writers earn less than half the national average wage. The situation since then has dramatically worsened for almost all of us. My payment from the copyright collecting body (the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Agency) is the most significant payment I receive each year. I can't afford to lose that along with the loss of royalties incurred for so many other reasons.

It will obviously be bad for all of us - patients and authors - if the NHS Scotland does not change its decision. The laws of copyright seek to allow people to copy material legally and the content provider to be recompensed for his or her work and skill. These are both important principles and I am appalled to hear that they are being disregarded.

Please put pressure on the NHS Scotland to reinstate its copyright licence, allowing the legal availability of vital health information to doctors, and crucial income to flow to the creators of that information.

I would be happy to talk to you further about this if you wished. 

Yours sincerely,

Nicola Morgan


catdownunder said...

Extremely well said! Good luck!

Ebony McKenna. said...

Very important. Well said.

Whirlochre said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Whirlochre said...

I hate it that writing and reading are treated as some kind of self-perpetuating magic.

JO said...

A great letter, Nicola.

And it got me thinking - surely the reason behind staff copying information is to contribute to their own learning and thus benefit patient care. Most written information in the public arena has been peer reviewed (I'm excluding self-published stuff here) and properly audited - thus people can be reasonably certain that it reflects the best of knowledge as we understand it at the moment.

Where else are they going to find this information? On the internet? Is there a method to ensure that papers posted online have been through the same rigour as anything published on paper?

If not, the consequences for patients could be alarming. NHS Scotland may not care about authors, but they should, surely, worry about patient care.

widdershins said...

Has this letter reached the ears ... erm ... eyes of the erstwhile Ms Sturgeon?

Savita Kalhan said...

A very important issue and well stated, Nicola. Hope it gets read. Best of luck.

Catherine Hughes said...

It's been my experience that some medical practitioners copy information for the benefit of their patients directly. One example (although I am not sure if the information is bought as a computer program or copied from a source) is the exercises that physiotherapists print off for their patients. I've also received photocopied information from my occupational therapist.

It seems ludicrous that NHS Scotland would see abandoning their licence as a viable option.

Kath McGurl said...

Good for you and well said.


Well done, Nicola. This needs wide support - you have mine.

Anonymous said...

NHS Scotland staff obtain its copies from electronic resources, for which subscriptions are paid and (presumably) authors are then recompensed by the e-publisher. Only a tiny amount of photocopying (as opposed to printing out of electronic resources) was done in the past, and following the non-renewal of the licence, this has now ceased, so authors would not be receiving any compensation via ALCS anyway.

Thus the Open Letter is based on a misunderstanding of what was, and is, going on in NHSS establishments.

Anonymous said...

I think you will find that royalties are not paid on academic/research papers anyway. That does not mean they are not subject to copyright but the author may not receive payment. It may be different in Scotland - but I doubt it. Andrew Wilson

Paddy said...

How many medical researchers and writers work speculatively?

In other words, do the majority of these researchers NOT get paid a wage to conduct the research and publish the results?

Nicola Morgan said...

Paddy - v intermittent Internet access as an away so brief reply: fact that some/many are paid ignores other fact, that many are not! Like me. It's the principle of creator earning that we are concerned about. It's fundamental. I have written 100s of articles of medical nature, some speculative and none on expenses. I earn through royalties for some of my work, or else modest fees. Nothing I do is salaried, all freelance.

As I said in my letter, the largest single payment I get every year is my photocopying payment, modtly actually for books for which I do not get royalties. It's crucial for me and many other writers.

Paddy said...

@Nicola - I take issue with the idea that medical research will be of a lower quality in the absence of copy licensing. I sincerely doubt that it will, since there is no shortage of interested writers covering the topic.

Where is the harm to patients in this scenario? Or for writers, in fact, who are not out of pocket through fault of anyone but themselves for choosing to write without a guarantee of payment.

The ‘half the national average wage’ comment is irrelevant. No one has forced these people to be medical writers. If your primary source of income dries up, you simply look for another.

I am a ‘content producer’ myself. I am a graphic designer and a musician, but I am also a copyright abolitionist. As such I do not and will not ever rely on selling infinitely copyable goods to provide my income.

To do so would be a bad decision. It is simply lazy to expect the government to sustain your broken business model.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Nicola that the creator should receive recompense for any copying that takes place that is not permitted under one of the exceptions to copyright. The point I was making is that all the copying going on in NHSS since the ending of the CLA licence has either been under an exception to copyright or is licensed by electronic publishers. So Nicola is NOT losing any money through the ending of the CLA licence. If she feels hard done by, she should take the matter up with e publishers, not with the Scottish Government.

Lois Bray said...

Although certain published content is available via The Knowledge Network (the online learning and knowledge resource for health and social care in Scotland), there are limitations to the permissions granted. Also, while there are a number of journals available via The Knowledge Network, the number of books available is limited.

CLA have received concerns from NHSS staff who find the cancellation of the NHSS CLA Licence restricting, and the new NHSS copying guidelines, confusing (the guidelines have been withdrawn and re-issued several times).

We believe that this is not only unfair to creators who deserve remuneration for their hard work, but also troubling for NHSS staff and patients for whom the quality and availability of information is of the highest importance.

We’re always willing to talk to organisations about developing a licence that suits their specific needs – and this applies to NHSS.

Anonymous –
We’d be interested to hear what evidence you have to support your claim that only ‘a tiny amount of copying’ occurs within NHS Scotland. Our investigations have revealed that NHS Scotland did not conduct any surveys or audits prior to the cancellation of their licence.

Also, is the ‘electronic resource’ you refer to The Knowledge Network?

Lois Bray
The Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA)

Wrath Of God Herself said...

I agree with Nicola's comments and support the CLA in this, and I also wrote to Nicola Sturgeon about the issue. What writers get paid is so little that these ancillary payments, collected by agencies like CLA & ALCS are vital and we need to protect our rights.

Nicola Morgan said...

In haste so excuse typos.

There are some substantial misunderstandings going on as to how writers earn a living and what the law currently is (like it or not). There are many different sorts of writers earning in a variety of ways: some are salaried, some paid a fee, some paid an advance and royalties, some paid royalties; some paid well and others not. What is relevant is that it happens to be the law that you cannot in most circumstances simply copy without the permission of the copyright-holder: usually the writer.

On Twitter, one commenter has been arguing that if we find infringement we should gather evidence and let the CLA fight for us. This is a travesty of a realistic situation. We can't go round gathering evidence of individually tiny infringements - it would be impossible or a bad use of time.

There are too many Anonymouses for convenience but to the one who said "Thus the Open Letter is based on a misunderstanding of what was, and is, going on in NHSS establishments" - No, a) it isn't and b) the principle is of copyright, far more widely than in the NHSS. The fact that some NHS practitioners or researchers or writers are copying legally does not detract from the problem that they now cannot legally copy as much as they used to. It is, quite simply, against the law to break copyright. By not paying the licence the NHS gives people two options: don't copy or copy illegally.

Paddy - I welcome your non-anonymous contributions. Thank you. However, I take issue with you on a few points. I won't take issue on your stance as a copyright abolitionist - that's an act of principle or faith that I can't meet you on. On the other hand, I am not a copyright fascist - I DON'T believe in jealous guarding of copyright or the prevention of the free trade of intellectual property. In my view the copyright laws can be too draconian.

However, you say some things I'd argue with:

"No one has forced these people to be medical writers." I find that a weak argument in general, and in this specific. I am not talking only about medical writers anyway. I'm talking about writers. But in any case I always find that argument unhelpful. It's like saying of low paid workers that they chose their jobs, or people in dangerous jobs that they chose them. Of course they did. It's a truism and fails to address the issue at stake. which is what happens to them in their jobs and whether it is right.


Nicola Morgan said...

(contd from previous comment)
"If your primary source of income dries up, you simply look for another." Simply? Not simple at all. On the other hand, actually, I've always advocated diversity. Trust me, i'm looking for all sources of income, but I'm also guarding my right to my own income from writing.

"Or for writers, in fact, who are not out of pocket through fault of anyone but themselves for choosing to write without a guarantee of payment." Our guarantee of payment IS partly the copyright act!

"I am a ‘content producer’ myself. I am a graphic designer and a musician, but I am also a copyright abolitionist. As such I do not and will not ever rely on selling infinitely copyable goods to provide my income." I'm confused. How do you do that work without selling infintiely copiable goods? You are salaried? So you don't need to worry about copyright, as I understand it? That's fine. That's your choice. (I think? Seriously, I'm confused.)

There is a law. It's not perfect. It's far from perfect. It should be relaxed. I am not, as I said, a copyright fascist. Also, I give away masses of my content, (on this blog for a start) but when I do it is my choice. And that is the point. When I write articles I do so expecting to be paid when people use them for profit or work.

It feels right. It's impossible to police fully, which is why I've no interest in pursuing the course suggested to me on Twitter, but I'll stand up and shout about it a little.

Thank you all, genuinely, for your comments, here and on Twitter. Do keep them coming but I may not have time to comment further. Stacks to do.