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Department Weighing Plan To Copyright Information Data Base

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WASHINGTON--In a dramatic shift from past practice, the Education Department is weighing a proposal to copyright its educational-information data base and to charge fees for its use.

Department officials say the plan, outlined in a letter sent last month to users of the Educational Resources Information Clearinghouse, or ERIC, would raise funds for improving the data base that Congress is unlikely to provide in the current budget climate.

But the proposal faces stiff opposition from education and library groups, which contend that it would restrict access to information by driving up the cost. These groups, backed by Rep. William D. Ford, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, have vowed to block the proposal in Congress.

Earlier this year, the House passed legislation, which was not considered by the Senate, that would have prohibited the department from copyrighting the data base.

"If the whole idea of the ERIC data base is to make good educational practice and research available to a broad range of practitioners, [charging fees] hardly seems to be a way to go about it,'' said Anne Heanue the associate director of the American Library Association's Washington office.

Ms. Heanue also said that her organization objects to the idea of granting copyrights to materials produced by public funds, and she predicted that the move may deter people from contributing to the system.

Robert M. Stonehill, the director of the ERIC program, said he and other department officials would weigh comments from the A.L.A. and other groups, as well as from incoming Education Department officials named by the Clinton Administration, before proceeding with the proposal. He said he would make a decision on the issue in the next couple of months.

Mr. Stonehill added that he did not think the "very small'' fees proposed in the plan would restrict access to the system. "We believe establishing copyrights and the ability to generate user fees will enhance the product,'' he said.

$4 Million in Revenues

Created in 1966, the ERIC system consists of 16 clearinghouses that collect journal articles, conference papers, reports, and other materials on a range of educational topics.

The complete data base--which currently consists of more than 735,000 bibliographic records--is compiled and edited by the ERIC Processing and Reference Facility, a private firm based in Rockville, Md. The firm then places the material on tapes that are, in turn, distributed by commercial vendors.

Educators and researchers can use the system by tapping into the vendors' on-line computer systems or by obtaining the tapes on CD-ROM.

Mr. Stonehill noted in his letter proposing the new policy that the system generates about $4 million annually in revenues from commercial usage, "but the ERIC system has never benefited from even a cent of those revenues.''

"ERIC has been in operation for 26 years, and for 26 years has gotten along without charging user fees or any revenue-sharing arrangement,'' Mr. Stonehill added in an interview. "That hasn't helped the program. But it has hindered its ability to make dissemination improvements and data-base improvements.''

The proposed copyright and user-fee system, however, would change that. Under the plan, the ERIC facility would charge a 10 percent fee on commercial on-line use and CD-ROM sales--for example, $3.60 on a connect-time charge of $36 per hour--as well as a flat $750 annual fee for an institution of higher education or other nonprofit agency planning to mount ERIC tapes.

Public libraries and state and local education agencies would be exempted from the fees.

Mr. Stonehill said the plan would raise from $150,000 to $250,000 annually, which, although a fraction of ERIC's $7 million budget, would permit the agency to upgrade the data base and improve dissemination.

And he denied that the copyright or the charges would restrict access to the system.

The plan would not limit the use of materials on the data base, he said, since the copyright would apply only to the entire machine-readable data base, not individual materials.

He also said that the fees were relatively modest and that vendors might choose to absorb them, rather than pass them on to users.

"I don't think access will be limited in any measurable way,'' Mr. Stonehill said.

Objections From Congress

The plan's critics strongly disagree, however, and stress that the size of the fees is not as important as the principle of establishing them, which they oppose.

"Just because it's only a little more expensive doesn't mean it's O.K.,'' said Nancy Kranich, the associate dean for libraries at New York University.

Rather than copyright the data base, she said, the Education Department should ask Congress for additional funds for improvements.

Although Congress has not provided such funds, the House has already signaled its opposition to the copyright plan. Representative Ford reiterated his concerns last month in a letter to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

"I believe the public interest is best served if data bases such as the ERIC data base are in the public domain,'' the Michigan Democrat wrote, "and that federal agencies should avoid permitting contractors to establish exclusive, restricted, or other distribution arrangements.''

Mr. Stonehill said he would consider the critics' objections before deciding whether to proceed.

He also noted that top officials from the incoming Administration may want to review the plan.

"Everything can be affected by the change in Administration,'' he said.

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