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Copyright law and education materials: can the two get along?

By Henry Zakumumpa


Thousands of school children in rural Uganda are already disadvantaged. Many schools are without libraries and those with libraries have stocks that are outdated with a few over-used and mutilated copies.

It is not uncommon to find there are only a few copies of current text books shared among hundreds of pupils. The cost of one new primary school text book is often the equivalent of a one-month salary for a primary school teacher in Uganda.

Take the case of a remote primary school in Butahe village in Mbarara District, a government-aided school located in south western Uganda; about 400 kilometers from the capital Kampala .There are only two mathematics text books for the 500-plus school population.

Many pupils and teachers use photocopying to get around the hurdle of scarcity of school text books, a practise which is even widespread in Uganda’s burgeoning universities. But that too is no longer an option –at least, a legal option. Photocopying a text book could actually land you in jail.

Under the Copyright and Neighboring Rights Act 2006 it is a criminal offence to photocopy copyrighted material such as school text books. These are mainly published by multinational publishers such as Longman and Macmillan, although local publishers such as Fountain Publishers and MK Publishers are increasing their market share in Uganda, especially for school text books.

“Ugandans don’t have a culture of buying books. Even among those who can afford. For example, a locally-published book costs only 18,000 shs (U$ 7) but students will still want to photocopy. We need to change mindsets,’’ says Dr Ronald Kakungulu who is conducting research commissioned by human rights NGO, the Center for Health and Human Rights Development (CEHURD) on the impact Uganda’s copyright law is having on the right of access to educational materials.

However, the copyright law permits some limited form of photocopying for educational purposes under a vague provision known as ‘fair use’, which permits photocopying only portions of a text book. Also, the ‘flexibilities’ in the copyright law allows the education minister to grant a license for vital education materials to circumvent the rigidities of copyright law.

For many years Ugandan schools and students have been buying Indian-printed versions of Western text books, which are much cheaper. When I was a secondary student of English literature, about 15-years-ago, we could scarcely afford brand-new copies of set texts such as Macbeth and A Man For All Seasons and got by through purchasing cheaper Indian-printed versions. Yet this option is not legally available to current secondary students in Uganda.

This practice of buying cheaper copies of copyrighted books is called ‘parallel importation’. This was legally permitted before the coming into force of the new Ugandan copyright law but is now outlawed.

But the desperate shortage of school text books in the average Ugandan primary school such as the one in Butahe, Mbarara district is as a result of a myriad of factors, which range from intellectual property rights issues to centralized educational material procurement delays.

‘’School curriculums are unstable and keep changing all the time, which makes it expensive for book publishers in Uganda since they have to make new publications too regularly, ‘’ says Peter Kibuuka, a representative of Pearson Longman.

“To be fair, looking exclusively at right of access to educational materials in isolation of the necessary balancing act of protecting publishers who make enormous investments in publishing books would be unsustainable,” counsels Charles Batambuze, executive secretary of the Uganda National Book Trust.

At a workshop organized by the CEHURD in collaboration with Uganda National Book Trust at Hotel Africana in Kampala last Thursday (3 November 2011), stakeholders met to discuss the relationship between Ugandan copyright law and the right to access educational materials. The discussion was chaired by Moses Mulumba, the executive director of CEHURD, who informed workshop participants that low- income countries need not despair and can exercise ‘flexibilities’ under international trade law, which allows for countries to access copyrighted educational materials under a grace period granted until July 2013.

‘’Even reforming our copy right law in Uganda alone is not going to be enough because of East African regional integration efforts. Laws made at the East African level supersede Ugandan laws,’’ said Moses Mulumba.

On efforts to broaden access to education materials, Professor Ikoja Odongo, who attended the CEHURD workshop, said ‘‘we need to take action and not just keep on talking and talking about access to educational materials”.

Professor Ogongo’s call needs to be heeded if school children in remote Ugandan primary schools are to freely access school text books and get an education – a right guaranteed under the 1995 Uganda constitution.

Source: KC team


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