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By Stuart Woods
August 15, 2011
6:25 PM

Filed under News

Debate over licencing fees heats up as more universities work around Access Copyright

A scrap between Access Copyright and post-secondary institutions over how to compensate creators for the use of their works in Canadian universities and colleges could have consequences for students and faculty heading into the fall semester.

Roughly 40 institutions have informed Access Copyright they plan to operate outside of an interim tariff that provides blanket permission for copying and disseminating a huge repertoire of copyrighted works. The number of institutions opting to work around Access Copyright is up from roughly 10 to 15 earlier in the year.

According to a blog post by University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, at least 14 of the 25 biggest Canadian universities have terminated their Access Copyright agreements, including the University of Calgary, University of Alberta, York University, Queen’s University, and Dalhousie University. Last week, the University of British Columbia announced it would follow suit once its current contract with Access Copyright expires at the end of the month.

The move will no doubt diminish the coffers of Access Copyright, which in past years has provided comprehensive copying licences to about 300 post-secondary institutions. In 2010, Access Copyright distributed $23.3 million to rightsholders and allocated $491,000 to the Access Copyright Foundation, officially launched earlier this year to “celebrate, encourage, and promote Canadian culture” through grants to artists, publishers, and cultural associations.

“We are anticipating a decline in revenues [for 2011],” says Erin Finlay, Access Copyright’s manager of legal affairs, adding that it’s still too early to say by how much.

The rift can be traced to last year when Access Copyright and the Association of Canadian Universities and Colleges failed to come to terms over a tariff that would have covered digital uses in addition to photocopying licences. The AUCC rejected the proposed tariff introduced by Access Copyright as being too costly.

The matter now rests with Canada’s Copyright Board, which isn’t expected to reach a decision for several years. In the meantime, institutions that have opted out of the interim tariff must secure permissions to use copyrighted works directly through publishers, authors, or other collectives. In some cases, universities have advised faculty to seek alternative materials in the public domain, something Finlay says could prove detrimental to students and hinder academic freedom.

“I have a real problem with professors and students not being able to use and access the works they wish to use and access,” she says. “It’s exactly the antithesis to what an institution is supposed to be there for, and what the Access Copyright tariff and comprehensive licence has been there for for 20 years.”

Finlay adds that collective, comprehensive licences continue to be the best way to manage the use of copyright-protected works, particularly in this digital environment.

“Any student in a coffee shop can copy a published work on his laptop; any professor [in] the institution can scan something and post it to his course management site,” she says. “The idea that every professor would have to clear permissions is ridiculous. The idea that a university could monitor and enforce that is incredibly difficult, and I don’t think it’s a way forward.”

The ultimate recourse for institutions found to be in violation of existing copyright is litigation, but, Finlay says, “no one wants to go there.”

Still, the matter may end up being fought in the courts. When asked if Access Copyright plans to monitor institutions known to be operating outside the interim tariff, Finlay said, “Of course we will. Part of our mandate is to ensure our rightsholders’ rights are being protected and enforced, and we will be continuing to monitor, as we always have, the actions of the institutions.”

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