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Universities flee Access Copyright in the wake of a proposed fee hike

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Yes, it's someone photocopying textbooks. Let's see you find a better photo about copyright!
In the wake of a proposed fee increase, universities across Canada have opted to leave contracts with once-popular copyright licenser Access Copyright.

Many schools, including York University, the University of British Columbia and almost every school in the prairie region have abandoned their contracts with Access Copyright in favour of steering the waters of copyright legislation on their own.

Established in 1988, the organization offers post-secondary institutions, businesses, schools and other groups advance permission to copy a variety of works, including books, newspapers and journals. Access Copyright collects royalties when licences are sold to universities and other organizations, and subsequently pays the authors, creators and publishers of the works used.

The organization’s executive director, Maureen Cavan, says universities have misrepresented the shift in fees. Access Copyright has applied to the Copyright Board of Canada for a tariff, or required fee, of $45 per student.

“Universities are suggesting that [the proposed $45-per-student fee] is a fixed fee, and that it’s already been implemented,” she said. “This is not the case.”

While they have applied for a $45-per-student fee, Cavan said this was the upper end of what they could expect, and that Access Copyright is not actually anticipating the Copyright Board to compel universities to pay this much.

But according to University of Saskatchewan copyright coordinator Jennifer Mainland, the fee hike was not the only factor in the school’s decision to part with Access Copyright.

She said the fee proposal was “the main reason,” but that “there were also a number of other requirements that Access Copyright had in their contract that said we have to give them access to our internal documents so that they can scrutinize how we’re using copyright materials.

“It’s just, quite frankly, none of their business,” she said.

With the explosion of digital media and Internet use changing the way people access material, wholesale copyright licences simply make less sense than they used to, said University of Ottawa law professor and Toronto Star columnist Michael Geist.

“If you take in open access materials, increasingly it’s apparent that Access Copyright doesn’t offer that much,” Geist explained. “Much of their use is covered through other mechanisms, as well as fair dealing.”

Mainland echoed this sentiment. Part of the reason the U of S was happy to leave Access Copyright was that the school already had to look outside its agreement for permission for some materials, she said.

“Campuses are now spending tens of millions of dollars every year on alternative licensing to cover hundreds or thousands of journals and millions of articles,” Geist said. “When Access Copyright goes to the Copyright Board and says costs should go up rather than down, the responsible thing for universities to do is to question that and Access Copyright’s role in copyright licensing.”

Cavan argued that Access Copyright takes away a significant amount of work and stress that will now be placed on professors, administrators and even students.

“Individually, piece by piece, permissions need to be sought,” she said. “It’s not easy for, for instance, a professor of physics to become an expert on copyright law. So yes, it’s going to be a lot more work.”

The reason Access Copyright applied to the Copyright Board for a tariff was that, according to Cavan, universities “refused to come to the table and negotiate” a new agreement over digital use of copyrighted materials.

Normally, agreements are negotiated voluntarily with universities.

Now that the U of S is no longer part of Access Copyright’s blanket licensing agreement, Mainland conceded that there will be more for students and staff to think about.

“It’s a matter of educating the staff and faculty and the members of campus as to the correct use of copyright materials,” she said. “That’s an ongoing process.”

As for what changes students can expect to see this year, Mainland said “students will likely find that their instructors are providing them with a lot less paper. [Under fair dealing,] you’re permitted to make copies for your own private study, but you’re not allowed to make copies for teaching purposes.”

Fair dealing is an exception to the exclusive rights granted by copyright law. Another method universities have to access materials without the help of Access Copyright is open access licensing, which allows “all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access to, and a licence to copy” materials. According to Geist, more and more academic works are being published under the open access licence.

As for the Access Copyright tariff, Cavan said the Copyright Board likely won’t make a decision until 2013 or 2014, leaving schools a few years at least to wade through copyright law on their own and discover new ways to access materials in the digital world.


photo: Flickr

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