“Give me your data, then you will get a penalty”


Imagine the following situation: every month the government asks you to download and hand in your GPS data from your car. If it appears that you have exceeded the speed limit anywhere, you will be fined for that later. Curious, don’t you think? My motorcycle weekends would turn out considerably more expensive, yet this is comparable to what the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) has agreed with the so-called PRO Foundation.

The PRO Foundation promotes the interests of publishers concerning copyright. When a scientist publishes an article, then this is nearly always done for a publisher who acquires the copyright on that article from the author. From that moment it is not permitted just like that to make parts of the article available digitally, for instance by posting presentations on Canvas.

Since litigation is expensive, and the illegal dissemination of material is very simple, the publishers, united in the PRO Foundation, have made agreements with universities about a standard fee for the dissemination of protected material or parts thereof. Once every four years each university has to give the PRO Foundation a full dump of Canvas, so that this foundation can check whether any violations have occurred anywhere of the agreements[1]. If the agreements are violated, a penalty ensues. As it did in the example given above.

The advantage of this arrangement is that within certain limits teachers do not have to ask for permission from publishers for the use of pictures or graphs in their teaching activities. However, TU/e would not be TU/e if it did not ask you anyway to fill in an online form for every picture in all your sheets. Almost any subject you easily need to fill in dozens of pages of web forms and in some departments entire armies of student assistants have been deployed to get all those forms completed and in order.

My solution is simpler. After having seen the form, I have made an assessment. Shall I keep posting sheets on Canvas or not? I have decided not to do so anymore. If students want to know what is being told in a lecture, they will have to attend that lecture. I use sheets - you can show anything, as long as you do not distribute it - but I also make more and more use of the blackboard. An additional bonus is that students listen and participate better in lectures.

And the PRO Foundation? It can search data dumps of Canvas and impose penalties all it likes. I am not going to be game for them.


[1] Although it is not the issue in this article, I do wonder to what extent this arrangement from 2017 is in line with the new GDPR. After all, Canvas is full of personal data.

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