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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Seminars Without Photocopies: Electronic Rights and the Scholar

Anyone who has prepared a graduate seminar knows it involves gathering articles so students are up to speed on historical landmarks and the latest research. Usually, those resources are photocopied and distributed under what is known as "fair use" laws. But what if your university library now has only electronic access to the articles, with restrictions on its transmission? This situation is all too possible—more electronic publications are being produced and found at libraries and electronic publishers view "fair use" with a different eye than their print predecessors. Will access to electronic resources meet the research and instructional needs of SBL members?

The answer to that question lies in the emerging area of electronic resources access. Rights and electronic publications, including the rights of authors to control their work, the rights of others to use that work, and a host of other issues are being addressed by an activity known as "digital rights." The term "digital rights" is a misnomer though; in most current proposals, there are no rights, only permissions. (In other words, what is not allowed is forbidden.)

There is no dispute that in the print world scholars currently enjoy rights such as "fair use" and "first sale" (the latter making it possible to purchase a book and give it to a colleague or student) as well as protection of their work as authors. With the rise of electronic publications and computers as the usage gateway, (rather than the publisher, or a general set of agreed laws) the question is how to translate those rights into programs that are sensitive to the particular case at hand. If those rights are presented by the computer as "permissions" only, then the broader rights of the scholarly community have been lost. (To illustrate: if a print publisher operated solely on a "permissions" model, they could deny the legitimate right to make copies for use in a seminar, simply by not granting that permission.)

A variety of technical proposals have been made to enable computers to determine what permissions a user has to an electronic publication. Those permissions may include printing (and how many copies), saving an electronic copy, making a backup copy, giving someone else an electronic copy, and others. The problem is that a permissions model does not allow the flexibility of the current system of rights for the user of publications. It is very important that rights and not permissions be the model for access to electronic publications.

The SBL and its members also originate publications and share concerns of proper crediting of research, use of that research by others, and financial compensation. Much biblical publishing is in traditional print media but any scanning service can rapidly turn a traditional monograph or journal into an electronic publication in fairly short order. Any system for enforcing rights in a computer system must recognize the full complexity of these author interests as well as interests of other scholars.

The key to implementing rights to electronic publications via computers and networks is that all parties behind the scenes—the system designers—must use the same method for specifying rights. In computer circles, specifying that common method is done by developing standards that are followed in building computers and software. These standards are now being developed to specify how computers administer rights for using electronic publications.

The digital rights landscape is developing rapidly and good information is hard to find. One excellent treatment of the issues at stake can be found in: The Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age. A publication of the National Research Council and available as a paperback or online at: This work offers a thoughtful consideration of the policy issues that must be addressed in an age of digital information.

The SBL has been representing the interests of its members as users and authors of digital publications in OASIS, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards , a body for developing standards for computer technology. While not as exciting as a new archaeological discovery, such work will have a direct impact on the distribution of the research and resources from such discoveries.

SBL members should educate themselves and their colleagues on the importance of implementing rights (and not just permissions) for the future. The availability, use, and protection of author's materials for academic use are at stake. Libraries share many of the concerns of scholars about implementing rights in computer technology and should be included in any discussions of these issues.

The time to make the requirements of scholars and libraries known is now. Once standards are developed, the rights implemented may not be what scholars expect or require. For further information on this or other technology related initiatives of the SBL, please contact Patrick Durusau, Director of Research and Development, Society of Biblical Literature,

Citation: Patrick Durusau, " Seminars Without Photocopies: Electronic Rights and the Scholar," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Nov 2005]. Online:


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