Stanford University's Cloud-based Copyright Clearance: A Win-Win for Content Creators and Users

The NMC extends its congratulations to Franny Lee and Martha Russell of Stanford University for receiving the Best in Show award for their poster, "Cloud-based Copyright Clearance Services," at the 2012 NMC Summer Conference at MIT.

Story by Christina Farr

Intellectual property law is riddled with complexities, and yet, a simple mistake could result in an expensive and highly public lawsuit. In the higher education sector, a misstep could lead to millions of dollars in legal fees. 

Despite their best efforts, U.S. colleges and universities regularly face charges of facilitating copyright infringement. In recent years, the explosion in online content has exacerbated the problem.

In a landmark case this year, book publishers accused officials at Georgia State University of massive copyright infringements by providing students with free electronic access to selected portions of certain textbooks. During the 15-day long trial, it became clear that even the experts were stumped on whether this case constituted a copyright violation. According to the presiding Judge Evans, “Fair use principles are notoriously difficult to apply.”

“Copyright is important,” said Michael Keller, Stanford’s Head Librarian, “because it provides stimulus to creators to continue to create – to get some reward for having created items if they are used and paid for in the marketplace.”

“It’s a highly complex ecosystem and it’s very difficult to figure out who owns something,” said Franny Lee, Associate Director at the Stanford Intellectual Property Exchange (SIPX) project. “The only guaranteed way to know whether fair use, a copyright exception, applies is if the judge says so after you’ve been sued,” she explained.

Legal experts fear that drawn-out copyright cases like this could have a nasty effect on the quality of education. Just as iTunes offered a salvation to the music industry, universities are in desperate need of an electronic, yet pragmatic, solution for academic content.

At Stanford University, a group of researchers drawn from the fields of computer science, law and higher education, are studying the requirements for a system to automate the copyright clearing process, known as the Stanford Intellectual Property Exchange (SIPX). The Openlibrary service intends to roll out the SIPX technology campus-wide in 2012.  

SIPX is the result of collaboration between CodeX (Stanford Center for Legal Informatics) and Media X, an organization that catalyzes new research themes. “We look for opportunities for collaborative discovery that allow our strategic partners and Stanford researchers to do things together that neither could do alone,” says Dr. Martha Russell, Executive Director, Media X at Stanford University.  “This was exactly that type of opportunity – at two points in time.” The research was first initiated in 2005 when Media X issued a call for research to investigate issues in user-generated content – new to the world at that time. It was later brought to fruition in 2009 when the Media X research theme, “Human-Machine Interfaces for Publish on Demand” was launched with a gift from Konica Minolta.

Dr. Roland Vogl, CodeX Executive Director and Lecturer in Law at Stanford University, was among the first to step up to the challenge, later joined by colleague at CodeX, Franny Lee.

“In 2005, we started with a legal feasibility study that considered the issues around a marketplace for copyright that enables micro-transactions for content,” said Vogl. 

With the leadership of Michael Genesereth, Associate Professor in the Computer Science department at Stanford and research director of CodeX, a working prototype was developed to determine help universities and schools facilitate legitimate access to content.

Lee, a copyright expert, said that when efforts are made to clear usage via traditional channels, it often takes professors weeks to identify the content owner and to pay royalties. At times, their request to use the document in class is simply ignored.

“This leaves the professor in limbo. They could use the piece and risk being sued. Or they could decide to not share the information with their students, which may reduce the overall quality of education,” she added.

Of particular interest to industrial partners was the “print on demand” aspect to the solution. The Media X strategic partner Konica Minolta agreed to lend an intelligent printer, the BizHub C6000, to enable researchers from SIPX to demonstrate how a computational system could verify pre-existing rights held by users, identify rights holders and determine appropriate royalty fees, process financial transactions, and print documents on-the-fly.

The team also partnered with Stanford’s Coursework intranet system to provide copyright clearances for electronic and mobile distribution of academic content. An instructor simply posts a SIPX link through on the intranet system. For each student, SIPX determines whether any discounts apply because of their affiliations, and if they need to pay for the document, how much. The embedded transaction layer is seamlessly built in for the student and adds only one simple click for purchase.

In Spring 2011, the legally trained Print on Demand system for course readers was unveiled on the Stanford campus. Highly successful in its first deployment, students enrolled on select economics, physics and psychology courses paid between 25-78% less for their course materials than for those assembled through traditional means.

Genesereth explained that when one of his students buys a course reader, they often unwittingly pay twice. The Stanford library has already purchased millions of dollars worth of licenses. Before SIPX came along, students did not realize their pre-existing rights.

In order to scale the technology, the team is spinning out a start-up, which recently placed in the Product Showcase at the Stanford BASES finale. “SIPX brings obvious benefits, particularly for larger research universities,” said Lee. “The school as a whole reduces risk of liability and saves its students a significant amount of money.

To ensure that the technology spreads to other campuses, Media X recently connected the team with IT Staff at Stanford, with academics and researchers at the Stanford School of Education, and with the New Media Consortium, a national group of IT staff in higher education. Discussions are underway with universities whose online course content delivery systems are based on the Stanford-originated SAKAI platform. Additional use cases for the distribution of special collections at university libraries are being explored with collaborators in the UK and Japan. The team’s immediate goal is to bring the SIPX technology to campuses throughout the U.S., and internationally.

Universities interested in how SIPX can clear copyright for online and print course materials should contact SIPXINFO@GMAIL.COM.

Media X seeks strategic partners and research collaborators for further requirements definition and additional use case projects; contact Martha Russell,

Project Links:
The winning poster!

Christina Farr is a Stanford alum and tech writer in Silicon Valley.

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