Screw this! We're going digital

Universities walk away from copyright licensing and into the digital age

Instead of raking in millions more from universities the proposed new fee structure from Access Copyright, the collective that licences copying and coursepacks for most universities across Canada, may be the push universities need to overhaul the way educational materials are accessed and used by instructors and students.

The new fee structure is asking universities to pay $45 per students, versus the $3.38 universities currently pay. An interim tariff was approved by the Copyright Board of Canada last week, which keeps the current fee structure in place until further consultation can be completed.

Law professor and Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa Michael Geist recently pointed out in the Toronto Star that while technology has transformed post secondary education over the past decade, “it has often been treated as a complement — rather than a replacement — for traditional educational materials.”

Geist explained that universities still operate with a two track approach to educational materials, spending millions on traditional print materials and licensing fees for copying, while simultaneously making use of various technological innovations, such as podcasts and webcasts, to facilitate class discussion. However, he argued that the cost of maintaining this approach is becoming unnecessary, with the “tipping point” towards technology coming with Access Copyright’s fee increase.

While Canadian universities may not become completely digital overnight, most seem well prepared to step away from increasing copyright licensing costs and forge ahead into heavier reliance on electronic materials. Geist pointed out that 74 universities across Canada have now paid millions into the Canadian Knowledge Research Network, which gives them licensed access to thousands of journals from over 5,000 publishers from around the world. “That content can now be used to develop electronic coursepacks and provide campus-wide access without the need to pay an additional licence fee,” Geist explained.

Several universities have decided to walk away from the Access Copyright contract, giving higher education institutions and policy makers heavy incentive to develop new ways of accessing materials. For example, in lieu of renewing their contact with the collective, Athabasca University announced in early December that they are increasing the availability of open education resources (OERs), materials ranging from lectures to podcasts that can be used by students and staff at various institutions.

Alberta’s advanced education minister Doug Horner also recently told the Edmonton Journal that he wants to launch an online eBook depository for students. “Because isn’t the objective to help the student achieve, as opposed to paying a stipend to whoever wrote a book?”, Horner said in the Journal. Rory McGreal, associate vice-president of Athabasca University, told the Journal that this could be an important step in helping universities deal with the copyright conflict. The depository could encourage more professors to publish outside of mainstream publishers, giving universities more options for accessing their publications, he said.

These initiatives reveal a silver living for universities being forced to split from Access Copyright because of a spike in copyright fees, even if the separation is inconvenient. If it opens the doors for more efficient, cost effective, and innovative ways of providing students and staff with educational materials, the collective’s proposed new fee structure could be a better pay off for post secondary education than for Access Copyright.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.