I recently retired from teaching after 40 years at the chalk-face. The last 28 were spent as an independent school head (not really the chalk-face, you might say), but for my first 12 years I was a music teacher. More relevant to this article, I started when photocopying was still small-scale, expensive and rather shiny. In those early years, any music I composed or arranged (quite a lot of both for school groups) was either scratched onto a stencil or written in spirit ink for running off on a Banda machine. Ancient history: such primitive technology must appear laughable nowadays.
The photocopying revolution was rapid and extraordinary. Long before I was promoted out of the classroom, photocopiers were appearing all round school buildings. Even thirty years ago subject departments were starting to abandon traditional textbooks and develop (and photocopy in prodigious quantities) their own materials. The advent of the internet and the possibilities of scanning, copying and pasting merely allowed these already developing habits to expand exponentially.
The advantages to teachers were clear: they could write, cherry-pick and collate what they wanted, creating bespoke resources to suit their departmental or even individual teaching. One unforeseen trap of do-it-yourself textbook creating remained largely hidden until, in recent years, commentators investigating the problem of ever-increasing teacher workload queried whether it made sense for a hard-pressed workforce to create resources on so individual and fragmented a basis. Currently there appears to be a move from ministers and the Department for Education to promote the production of standard textbooks once more.
Another pitfall lay in the cost. In those early boom years, photocopying became a free-for-all for teachers, often with inadequate foresight with regard to print budgets which too often ran out of control. When money ran short, some schools were swift to limit teacher access to the machinery, setting up print departments and hopefully pegging costs and reducing waste.
Waste there certainly was – and remains. How many large print runs do you see chucked in the recycling bin because page 7 came out upside-down? Let alone the mountains of practice exam-papers that sate the ever-growing thirst for revision classes. I recall anxious and guilty discussions twenty years ago when my middle-sized school used more than a million sheets of paper in a year.
The genie was well and truly out of the bottle, and I suspect our attempts to mitigate the problem were fairly futile. Teachers, as professionals, demanded this wonderful resource to support their teaching: to deny it to them seemed counterintuitive indeed. But both the volume of paper and the sheer overall cost were (and should remain) matters of genuine concern to all schools.
Then there’s the matter of ownership. People who publish teaching materials generally do so as their job, in other words, as their paid work that makes them a living. It’s so easy nowadays just to highlight that useful article by Professor Rosencrantz that you found (very possibly pirated) on the Web, and add it to your revision notes on Hamlet for your A level class. They’ll be so grateful – and, hey, you’ve even acknowledged him – but, if it was a published article, either he or his publisher or both are losing out. Sharing ideas is a wonderful, democratic thing: nicking them when they should be paid for isn’t so good. It’s ironic that an education system so concerned about students’ plagiarising material in essays and coursework appears unaware of the prevalence of the practice in teaching materials – as other writers on this website have noted here and here.
I cringe as both musician and head whenever I spot school orchestras or youth choirs singing from photocopies. As for solo performers, perhaps playing their Grade IV piece to an audience before their exam, slapping a wrinkled photocopied sheet on the music-stand…
When a head, I could attempt to reassure myself (successfully, for the most part) that proper procedure was being followed in my school. If you own the whole set of band parts, copyright law does permit you to keep them safe and pristine in a cupboard and hand out the same number of copies to your players: this has the obvious advantage of not requiring the purchase of a whole new set when the 3rd saxophone or 2nd trombone loses their part – on the day of the concert.
But it’s too easy for busy people, often with worthy intentions, to skip the important first stage, that of buying proper publishers’ copies. The author, composer or arranger (or all three) do the work for a living. The result of denying them, or Professor Rosencrantz above, due payment might not immediately or directly affect you: after all, you’re in a hurry with a lesson to prepare or a concert to get on stage and, besides, your budget’s just been cut again. But, if they can’t make a living from writing and publishing, they’ll eventually stop (or go bust), leaving nothing out there on the internet except unreferenced, uncorroborated twaddle: universal fake news in present-day parlance.
I was reminded of all that just this week, when planning the music for a family wedding at Christmas. Charmingly, the bride and groom had asked for my single published musical work, a little Christmas carol with which I was lucky enough to win a national competition in 2017. Ah, how easy it would be to email a pdf of the original (digitised) score around the 25 or so family and friends who will sing it.
But I can’t. The publisher was kind enough to take my piece on and, though I could choose to forego my 10% royalty on each copy, the firm is running a business. So I’ll buy the copies, and pay the postage.
In short, I’ll do what I’d expect others to do for me – and that’s not a bad rule by which to operate.