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As learning goes digital, publishing textbooks has become an increasingly difficult business everywhere, but Canada has made the situation worse, threatening children’s access to Canadian teaching materials, through its ill-conceived copyright legislation.
As learning goes digital, publishing textbooks has become an increasingly difficult business everywhere, but Canada has made the situation worse, threatening children’s access to Canadian teaching materials, through its ill-conceived copyright legislation.

Kate Taylor: Kids will suffer if Canada’s copyright legislation doesn’t change Add to ...

If you are sitting in a Grade 10 classroom in Ontario studying civics this year, you may well be using Civics and Citizenship, published by Oxford University Press. It’s a standard text for the compulsory course, examining how the Canadian political system works and asking students to consider such questions as whether our justice system is just or whether, if you didn’t live in Canada, you would want to. It was written and edited by Canadians and also offers online access to an interactive workbook and a directory of 250 primary and secondary sources.

Released in 2014, it is the last schoolbook Oxford will publish in Canada. The venerable academic publisher, a non-profit institution owned by the British university, which has operated a Canadian branch since 1904, stopped producing texts for Canadian schools two years ago, cancelling plans for history and geography texts that were in the works. Oxford still sells its backlist to schools but will not consider publishing new school titles nor refreshing old ones.

As learning goes digital, publishing textbooks has become an increasingly difficult business everywhere, but Canada has made the situation worse, threatening children’s access to Canadian teaching materials, through its ill-conceived copyright legislation.

Balancing users’ rights with those of creators is always a tricky business and when the previous Conservative government updated the copyright law in 2012, publishers and writers warned that it had made far too large and vague an exemption for educational purposes, considering that digital copying in universities and photocopying in schools is standard practice and was licensed to the education sector by publishers. At the time, provincial education ministries promised they would only copy what was fair, but defining fair has proved highly contentious.

In 2013, emboldened by the new environment, the education ministries (outside Quebec) stopped making payments to Access Copyright, which licences copying in schools and universities for the publishers. Alberta had sued the association and in 2012 got a decision from the Supreme Court, ruling that the copying of short passages, even if copied multiple times, was fair. The court, which was split 5-4, did not define short but the Council of Ministers of Education has, telling teachers they can freely photocopy as much as 10 per cent of a work or one chapter in any book. A February decision from the federal Copyright Board has now set a new tariff for the education ministries to pay Access Copyright, lowering the amounts to a fraction of previous levels, and arguing that the Supreme Court decision makes such copying fair – and thus not subject to payment.

But the publishers are not merely suffering lower revenue from Access Copyright; more importantly, they are also losing sales. They suspect that schools are copying far more than 10 per cent: Where they used to get orders for classroom sets, they will now get an order for a single book.

The results are stark. Oxford has closed a school publishing program that dated back to the 1930s. OUP Canada general manager Geoff Forguson says that, as a non-profit, the press is not permitted to take losses on the books it publishes and that Canadian school publishing has simply become too risky. Emond Publishing, an independent Canadian academic publisher that specializes in law texts for students and professionals, has also abandoned the secondary-school market. Paul Emond says that, as a businessman, he sees much better opportunities publishing material for lawyers than for high-school students.

Meanwhile, at the international educational presses whose Canadian branches publish many original textbooks as well as repurposing U.S. books for the Canadian market, it has become harder and harder to get head office to sign off on any plans for new Canadian titles.

The education sector is always struggling to make ends meet, but the sums actually spent on schoolbooks are paltry and falling, representing dozens of dollars compared to the thousands spend on each student every year. Recent Ontario surveys by People for Education, a group that advocates for public education, found that teachers increasingly turn to free online materials, using fewer Canadian sources in the classroom and fewer materials directly tied to the provincial curriculum. The group is concerned there is no quality control of free material.

The cash-strapped school system may have discovered a great way to save a few dollars per student but, unless the federal government plugs the loophole, education will pay in the end. Teachers will gradually discover that high-quality classroom material about Canadian history, geography and politics specifically tailored to their province’s curriculum simply isn’t available either in print or online because the publishers and writers who once created it have left the business.

As battles over piracy and copyright rage, it is rare that you can actually name the music that wouldn’t be recorded or the novels that wouldn’t be written, but in this instance you can cite the losses: There will not be a second edition of Civics and Citizenship. Canadian kids can count on that.

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