Better copy those textbooks while you can

UAlberta chooses not to renew Access Copyright license

The University of Alberta is the latest institution to oppose a new fee structure for licensing copyrighted works proposed by Access Copyright, the collective that licenses copying and course packs for most campuses in Canada.

The new fee structure would charge universities $45 per full time student, versus the $3.38 per student, universities currently pay. Approval of the new fee structure is pending a decision by the Copyright Board of Canada which is currently reviewing Access Copyright’s proposal.

The U of A has decided not to renew its agreement with the copyright licensing agency, which is set to lapse December 31. As a result, U of A students will no longer be able to take out and copy required textbooks for a course if it is on reserve at a U of A library. Although student union leaders at the U of A oppose the new fee structure, they say this will create a huge obstacle for students who rely on the library to save money on textbooks.

Even though the new fee is still awaiting approval, it is not surprising that the university is not waiting for an official decision before cutting ties with Access Copyright, considering the proposed fee increase stood to cost the university an extra $1 million annually. “I don’t buy things without knowing what I’m buying,” U of A provost and vice president (academic) Carl Amrhein told the Gateway.

In a press release, Amrhein explained that the decision to allow the agreement to lapse was not just an issue of cost, but also with the terms of the proposed license. “Access Copyright offered to extend the current agreement only if universities agreed to be retroactively bound by a future Copyright Board decision on not only the tariffs but also on proposed new license conditions. This is unacceptable,” Amrhein said.

The new license conditions may include the licensing of materials linked to on the Internet, additional protection for digital locks, no exclusion for fair dealing, and more extensive reporting requirements. “We are genuinely concerned about some of the potential restrictions in the proposed license that may threaten our ability to use copyrighted resources in the classroom and may impinge other existing laws, practices or rights.”

The agreement with Access Copyright allowed the university to keep reserve materials on library shelves. Once the agreement lapses, however, the university will be subject to a ruling under copyright legislation that disallows this practice. Armhein explained that the  ruling states that by putting materials on reserve shelves, universities are aiding and abetting students who would take them out and photocopy them.

While authors do deserve fair compensation for their work, it’s unreasonable for Access Copyright to expect universities to pay approximately 10 times more than they were originally paying to stay with the licensing agency, and at a time when many feel such fees should be decreasing.

Many post secondary institutions have heavily criticized the proposal for its take on fundamental copyright issues and for its demands for a high rise in fees. The University of British Columbia recently chose to challenge the tariff by working towards establishing its own license database to track the rights to various works for professors and students.

Access copyright has argued that it is asking the Copyright Board to set the tariff to ensure that authors and publishers are fairly compensated for use of their works. The agency stated on its website that the proposed fee increases have been “grossly exaggerated by critics,” arguing that the new tariff represents a tiny fraction of most universities’ budgets, and that it was up to universities and colleges to decide whether or not to absorb the additional costs or pass them on to students.

“Some academics say there should be no payment at all; however professors do not work for free, and their unions are silent when pay increases they demand get passed on to students,” the agency argued.

However, law professor and Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Michael Geist, has said he believes that the post secondary institutions have every right to be critical of the proposed new fee structure and licensing conditions. He pointed out that teachers and students typically rely on several alternative methods for finding course materials, which don’t involve using the license.

“For example, the Canadian Research Knowledge Network has purchased licensed access to thousands of journals for 650,000 university researchers and students. In light of that access, course-packs are being replaced by database-generated course reading lists,” Geist wrote in the Ottawa Citizen.

“Given the myriad ways teachers and students access materials that fall outside the Access Copyright license, the education community can be forgiven for asking why the collective is demanding millions more in compensation.”

Geist argued that universities should seriously consider using individually licensed works and distance themselves from the agency. He explained that individual negotiations are a “win-win” option for students, authors and teachers, because they have the potential to save money for students and ensure that authors are fully compensated for use of their works.

If the decision to stay with Access Copyright is one that is based on convenience, perhaps institutions should start to take Geist’s advice and move towards individual licensing. The new Access Copyright licensing conditions are likely to be just as cumbersome for universities and colleges, and not beneficial for students or instructors.

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