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Pirates of academe? We laugh Add to ...

In recent weeks, Canada’s universities have been accused of being pirates and thieves, of acting illegally and of promoting civil disobedience. It makes great reading, but it’s summer fiction. It’s a tribute to Canada’s creators that they could paint copyright issues in such terms.

The information revolution we are living through provides unprecedented opportunities for students to learn. They have access to a broader range of material and are accessing it in more formats than ever before. These changes pose challenges to ensure that creators are properly compensated. For the past two decades, Canada’s universities have worked with creators through Access Copyright, a creators’ collective to license photocopying of their works. Over the decades, the payments to creators have been large and growing. But now the collective wants to dramatically increase its price, for something students and universities are using less.

Today’s university students and faculty increasingly prefer to use digital material, for which Access Copyright does very little licensing. Access Copyright acknowledges that the body of works in digital format that it represents is little more than 1 per cent of the body of works it represents in print format.

Moreover, in the digital environment, many publishers have decided they no longer need their collective as the “middle man” to act on their behalf. Publishers have bypassed their collective to negotiate directly with universities, or consortiums of universities, for licences to cover the use of their works in digital format.

In short, the digital options to Access Copyright’s licences have grown tremendously, while its largely print repertoire has lost much of its value to the university community.

In response to the changing dynamics of the marketplace, Access Copyright recently proposed a tariff of $45 per student, which would more than double the amount of money that Access Copyright would receive from universities. Access Copyright wants universities to pay more and more for something they use less and less: photocopied material. Access Copyright has also refused to provide transactional permissions (payment per use) to universities for the copying of any works not already covered by other licences.

It’s this heavy-handed approach that has led some universities to decide they won’t agree to pay a large fee per student to Access Copyright for the use of a small repertoire of digital works. Instead, these institutions are choosing to rely on their digital licences to satisfy most of their requirements.

The rejection of the proposed Access Copyright tariff regime by some universities has nothing to do with civil disobedience or lowering costs. Instead, several universities have come to the conclusion that the large “one size fits all” fee proposed by Access Copyright does not represent good value for money any more.

Authors and publishers will continue to be paid very large sums for the use of their works in universities, but the payments will be made directly to rights holders under digital licence agreements rather than through Access Copyright.

So university students don’t need to fear thieves, pirates or civil disobedience on campus – and they can look forward to accessing the widest range of learning materials available in the format they prefer.

Paul Davidson is president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

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