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It's that time of year again. Canada's university students are hitting the back-to-school sales for paper, pens, binders and gigabytes of digital storage media. This year, they should also be buying their own copy of Canada's Copyright Act – because they're going to need it.

Over the summer, some prominent universities quietly decided to forgo blanket copyright clearance through Access Copyright for the coming year's academic materials, a radical policy change that leaves students and their professors in need of expert guidance.

Suddenly, there's a legal minefield on campus. Decisions about what to teach and how to deal with copyright-protected materials in the classroom now require legal forethought and forceful justification by professors – and even then a content request may be denied by the campus copyright police.

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For decades, Canada has enjoyed a co-operative system where professors and students use vast amounts of photocopied material in the classroom, while artists and publishers are compensated through collective licensing. Access Copyright is a collective, a union of individual writers, visual artists and publishers who have pooled their otherwise limited resources to create a one-stop shop for Canadian content licensing. Through collective licensing, schools, artists and publishers have done business around copyright with mutual respect.

Not so any more.

The traditional photocopied course pack has gone online, and some schools strongly resist paying for these supposedly new classroom uses. The administration that used to pay for a few thousand course packs of Canadian content now wishes to pay for none. After all, we're told, digital copies aren't the same as physical copies. Multiply those thousands of course packs by all the universities in the country. Now multiply that number by zero. You see the cost-saving scope of this gambit.

At the same time, many universities are expanding their use of corporately owned, password-protected, content databases. Access Copyright is not a closed database of limited content, and thank goodness it's not. The Access Copyright repertoire of content is the vast and ever-expanding pool of unlocked, publicly available Canadian creativity – the stuff of our greatest writers and visual artists, our magazines, newspapers and books.

As a Canadian writer, I intentionally don't lock my work into a closed, corporate subscription service because I want it to be freely available for use by any Canadian teacher or student. Of course when I say freely available, I mean unlocked, not unpaid. If an artist's work is valuable enough to teach, it's valuable enough to be paid for. Artists have mortgages, too.

Access Copyright has prepared itself for the reality of digital delivery for years. It studied how it's done and how it's licensed around the world, then it approached Canada's postsecondary community with a proposal for new licences that would bring us all fully and fairly into the digital age. The price for these new licences was designed to reflect assumed new and increased uses. The universities have refused to negotiate.

To keep ongoing uses legal, the Copyright Board of Canada imposed an interim tariff, but these 30 or so schools say they'll operate outside the tariff. They simply won't use any Access Copyright material in ways covered by the tariff. In other words, they'll ban certain uses of certain Canadian works from campus.

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This is much more than just a slap in the face for Canadian artists. It represents an unprecedented attack on academic freedom. Would the very well-paid leaders of these universities ever have allowed such heavy-handed manipulation of their own university educations? If this were any of the radicalized decades of the past century, Canadian universities would be in for a season of sit-ins and picket lines, with students and teachers demanding unfettered access to Canadian content.

But in the digital-download new millennium, when so much of our behaviour is controlled by technology, will anyone even notice what's missing?

John Degen is a poet, novelist and freelance journalist. His novel, The Uninvited Guest , was shortlisted for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award in 2007.

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