On April 8, 2015, ProQuest announced that it had acquired SIPX, “a unique digital course materials solution that addresses a variety of copyright and costs concerns for universities” to be managed through its Bowker affiliate. According to ProQuest CEO Kurt Sanford, “SIPX’s contributions to the higher education community align with ProQuest’s mission to connect libraries more deeply into the day-to-day research and education needs of students and faculty. Its service enables universities to further leverage the investments their libraries have made in their research collections. With our support, customer relationships, and investment, we will rapidly increase the availability and richness of SIPX’s services.” SIPX co-founder and formerly VP of Business Development Franny Lee* will take on overall management; with Ben Lewis, ProQuest’s Senior Vice President for Strategy & Business Development, overseeing the new division. Bob Weinschenk, SIPX CEO who raised the venture capital for the company in 2012, has apparently left for other ventures.
As Weinschenk noted earlier, “SIPX (formerly the Stanford Intellectual Property Exchange) started as a research project at Stanford, funded with $2.5m of gifted research, looking at how to solve the digital copyright ‘problem’, i.e., the fact that there was no system in place that allowed copyrights to be handled digitally other than through a manual process. I joined SIPX in December 2011, when the product was already up and running, being used at Stanford, and ready to commercialize,” he explained to the Scholarly Kitchen. The company began, he noted on his LinkedIn page as “some very innovative professors from the Stanford Department of Computer Science and Law School had an idea to ‘explore the changing uses of content in higher education: in particular, the challenges posed by the existing copyright systems that are no longer able to support the pace of new innovations.’ After years of research, the team created a system to meet these challenges with an initial pilot launch of SIPX (Stanford Intellectual Property Exchange) at Stanford in April 2011.”
“After four successful deployments of the prototype SIPX system,” he continued, “it became clear that we had something special. In October 2012, we licensed the core technology from Stanford, raised $2.4M in venture capital, moved our service to the cloud, and hired an amazing team. The fun begins! Our goal with SIPX is to radically simplify the legal use of copyrighted material in higher education today, and create an open and transparent marketplace where consumers and providers can come together to the benefit of all parties.”
Open Access & Course Packs
The high cost of college textbooks and other learning materials has become a major national issue. The national Student PIRGs group (Public Interest Research Groups) has released studies and information that outline the effects of cost on students:
- 65% of students said that they had decided against buying a textbook because it was too expensive.
- 94% of students who had foregone purchasing a textbook were concerned that doing so would hurt their grade in a course. More than half of the students felt significant concern for their grade.
- Nearly half of all students surveyed said that the cost of textbooks impacted how many/which classes they took each semester.
- 82% of students felt they would do significantly better in a course if the textbook was available free online and buying a hard copy was optional.
Given the rise of ejournals, ebooks, and Open Access journals, new methods have arisen to allow universities and faculty options in how they approach course materials. As Student PIRGs notes, “Not only is the open textbook an ideal alternative to a traditional textbook from a student point of view, but it is the only product in the marketplace that can directly challenge the high prices that publishers charge for new editions. These high prices, which outpace inflation, underpin the entire textbook marketplace, and drive market conditions for other alternatives such as the used book and rental markets.”
Course Packs—A Growing Sector
SIPX isn’t the only commercial alternative available today. CoursePacks Etc. claims to be “the leader in digital and printed learning materials.” University Readers, founded in 1992, claims to offer its services to more than 2,000 faculty, “over 350 universities nationwide and over 100,000 students. Every term, we’re introducing new professors to our services through referrals and national awareness.” XanEdu, and their Academic Pub, provides what it calls a “publisher-neutral approach” that “lets you combine content from virtually anywhere,” be it print or digital, creating custom print versions that can be sold at college bookstores. XanEdu and Academic Pub note that they provide “the most comprehensive collection of licensed content anywhere. The combined collection has over 12 million content items—and if you can’t find what you need in our collection, we’ll find it and clear it for you.” Copyright clearance is an added advantage to many schools that use these services.
“SIPX today continues to deliver to customers and partners across the globe the best platform-agnostic service for finding, managing, distributing, and analyzing the use of digital course materials in higher education, easily and cost-effectively,” the SIPX website proclaims. “We strive every day for the same passions that we’ve always had—supporting the creation of high quality education and learning, and bringing the maximum possible savings to students and schools.”
“Students, faculty members, schools, and publishers promptly embraced SIPX’s simple solution for compiling, delivering, and managing digital reading lists,” the company explains. “Educators, librarians and support staff at leading schools—including the University of Illinois, the University of Notre Dame, Stanford University, the University of Texas-Austin, and others—use SIPX to set up course readings and immediately benefit from the system’s automatic check for works that are available at no cost to students via library subscriptions or open sources. By leveraging SIPX to eliminate redundant spending and reduce materials costs, students have experienced an average of 20 to 35 percent in savings to date.”
“In cases where payments for readings are necessary,” the description continues, “SIPX simplifies complicated licensing, purchasing and invoicing processes into a seamless online transaction, eliminating administrative burdens and expense. SIPX’s technology is flexible and integrates with a wide range of platforms and use cases such as campus Learning Management Systems, library course reserves, bookstore course packs and global Massive Open Online Courses.”
Issues & Concerns
In the complex area of copyright, the tension between academic interpretations of Fair Use versus publisher assertions of ownership is frequently at odds. Some librarians question the SIPX model and the company’s relationships with publishers. “We were approached by SIPX and were initially deeply interested in their service because, we thought, it was a way for our tightly staffed library to avoid what we called ‘double dipping’—students paying for content through course packs that we already provided access to,” notes one academic librarian who wished to remain anonymous. SIPX was quick to point out functionality with Moodle and touted their vision for redefining how copyright costs are determined by ‘helping’ publishers better understand how materials are used.”
“As we started on-boarding with them, we held a series of conference calls that raised red flags for us,” this academic librarian continued:
- “Provisioning: Admittedly, this is the area I know the least about. However, our e-Learning team was concerned because SIPX suggested that student data would be loaded but never removed from their system. This was when we realized that they aren’t a plug in to Moodle—they were pushing students out of Moodle to SIPX to get content. That’s how we learned about flag #2.
- Licensing: SIPX was having us load content on to their servers and they would store the content. Permanently. They were building a ‘library’ of our library content. Our collections team was very uncomfortable with this and felt that we were not acting in good faith to our vendors by putting their content up for SIPX to store for the next faculty member to search for. Was that faculty member limited only to Cal Poly content? Or were they gaining access to all SIPX content and vice versa. We received a vague response that did not mesh with what we felt was kosher.
- Data: This was really the last straw for us. Data on usage was not ‘ours’ but ‘theirs’ and now we can see why. Again, our commitment to protecting student privacy and data was at odds with SIPX’s model.”
These concerns brought this library to end their involvement with the company. “We saw it as a chance to save our students money, expose faculty to library content, and to support the teaching and learning needs of our institution. In the end, however, those flags were too many and too bright for us pursue SIPX beyond a very short beta phase.”
SIPX’s Franny Lee Responds to Critics
ATG reached out to SIPX officials to get their take on some of these criticisms of their approach to managing rights. Franny Lee responded with this explanation on their approach: “SIPX’s unique technology and solution creates remarkable benefits for libraries and the students, faculty, and schools that libraries serve. We are born from a university, with significant library influence (Michael Keller, Stanford UL, was a board member since inception) and with a continuing goal to be deeply in tune with library perspectives. SIPX aligns with libraries’ ongoing efforts to make education more affordable, saving money directly for the student by bringing existing licensed and open content into their course materials and making those expensive resources go even further; and also saving significant amounts of money for the library itself by creating efficiencies in their budgets and workflows (please see Notre Dame case study). The data SIPX shares with publishers is industry standard—to report their sales of non-subscribed content, as well as report the access provided without charge to students under a subscription license—and we’re committed to providing an appropriate level of protection and transparency. In fact, SIPX provides greater protection for instructor-identifiable data than traditional coursepack channels. SIPX protects user privacy and does not disclose any personally identifiable information—we are FERPA compliant.”
“SIPX brings together sources of data that were previously silo-ed,” Lee continues, “now making informed decisions in regards to course content and licensing easier. Schools and libraries have access to SIPX data, giving more visibility into what content is actually being used by their campus in support of teaching and learning, so they can make purchasing decisions based on this added value and, where desirable, adjust collections to better serve classroom needs. I have heard some perspectives from libraries that any data shared with publishers only serves publishers’ business interests to the detriment of libraries, a position that is more entrenched in light of recent school-vs.-publisher litigation. But there are other important elements that must be considered too in an environment that’s highly budget conscious and performance oriented: publishers can use SIPX reports to connect deeper with their authors and editorial boards and improve the way they produce high quality academic content—an end result that benefits all higher education including students, faculty, researchers and libraries.”
“These are complex issues,” Lee admits, “and I believe that even libraries’ perspectives are divided on these questions. I do believe in taking a big picture approach, because the benefits and needs associated with these decisions often extend far beyond the library’s usual scope—and libraries can use SIPX as an opportunity to bridge into new conversations across campus. The overwhelming response from libraries and other SIPX customers is that their usage data is appropriately protected through SIPX and that the benefits are very significant—bringing 20-35% savings to students, reducing their own course reserves costs by 80%, more fully leveraging their holdings, or having access to new analytics to make the library visible and relevant.”
Today libraries are developing their own course packs and reserve systems without the use of company intermediaries. For companies to succeed in this environment, they will need to not only offer appropriate services at fair market value—but they will need to re-evaluate their understanding of copyright and Fair Use in building their services.
The Challenge Ahead
While still called the Stanford Intellectual Property Exchange, SIPX noted that it was “designed to give rightsholders an additional digital distribution channel, with options to monetize any content on any terms they choose. Users are able to easily identify the conditions on which their desired content can be used. By automating elements of traditional manual processes, both rightsholders and users can legitimately use content or craft their own individualized copyright licenses faster and at reduced costs.” However, the devil still resides in the details.
Fair Use has been clearly defined differently by academics and publishers. The Georgia State University lawsuit, for example, has become a case “watched by universities around the country to see how a federal court would interpret Fair Use in regard to electronic copies and for educational use. It has also spurred dialogue on problems with the current system for generating, publishing, and disseminating academic works.” The case, first filed in 2008 and currently under appeal concerned, “three academic publishers filed suit against four officers of GSU for ‘pervasive, flagrant and ongoing unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials through the library’s e-reserve system’.” The ongoing appeals show that libraries are willing to take the issue of Fair Use as far as needed. For SIPX and other companies to work in tandem with commercial publishers collecting and sharing information on use only adds fuel to this ongoing debate.
ProQuest has a deep, long history of connection to academe and at this stage of SIPX’s development, ProQuest may be able to clearly and effectively overcome some of the basic issues that appear to have been missed by SIPX. “As part of the broader ProQuest enterprise,” company officials noted at the time of the sale, “SIPX will be strengthened and supported as it continues to evolve the increasingly popular service.”
(* The September issue of Against the Grain will feature an in-depth interview with Franny Lee, Vice President, Business Development & Co-Founder of SPIX and ProQuest CEO Kurt Sanford.)
Nancy Herther is librarian for American Studies, Anthropology, Asian American Studies & Sociology at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus. firstname.lastname@example.org