A Martlet Investigative Series: Is Access Copyright wrong for UVic?

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UVic has announced that it intends to “reluctantly” sign a model license deal with Canadian copyright collective Access Copyright. Students will see a 46 per cent increase in the fees they pay to access the collective’s repertoire of material, according to UVic’s copyright office. Full-time students will now pay $26 per year towards Access Copyright fees.

The decision comes after months of negotiation between Access Copyright and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), a group that represents major universities and colleges across the country, including UVic. Access Copyright’s previous agreement with the AUCC expired in 2010, and when they failed to negotiate a new deal the Copyright Board of Canada approved an interim tariff that charged universities $3.38 per full-time student annually, plus 10 cents per copied page used for classes and in coursepacks. The new model license will replace the interim tariff model and will be effective until Dec. 31, 2015.

Access Copyright first proposed a blanket fee of $45 per full-time student per academic year, an increase of almost 800 per cent. Many universities and colleges were against the deal. A shift came in January 2012 when the University of Toronto and Western University signed their own negotiated contracts with Access Copyright at $27.50 per full-time student per year, a move that caused many other schools to reconsider the offer.

In December 2011, UVic Vice-President Academic and Provost, Dr. Reeta Tremblay, announced that UVic would not be signing the licensing agreement. More than 30 other major universities and colleges across the country, such as UBC and York, also committed to not signing. Yet on May 15, the deadline to sign a letter of intent, UVic announced that it would agree to the conditions of the model license as a strategy to “mitigate the risk of litigation by Access Copyright in the immediate future.”

In an interview with critic Jesse Brown, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist likened the deal to an “expensive insurance policy that you don’t necessarily need,” a sentiment shared by some of UVic’s faculty.
“Universities are . . . very conservative bureaucracies that have concerns about legal issues, and obviously they felt they were sort of exposed to potential copyright lawsuits by existing in this limbo,” says David Leach, head of the professional writing department.

The press release from UVic’s copyright office states that the cost of the AUCC’s negotiated contract with Access Copyright, a flat fee of $26 per full-time student annually, is “not considered sustainable in the long term.”

Access Copyright, however, maintains that the increase in fees reflects added value for students such as their expanding repertoire of works and the rights to digital materials.

“What almost every professor and all universities failed to understand initially is that it included a vast granting of new rights under the new license, hence the new cost,” says James Romanow, co-chair of the board of directors for Access Copyright.

Romanow states that, compared to the previous deals between Access Copyright and the AUCC, which included per-page copying fees, the current model could even potentially save students money.

“What most people are completely unaware of is that the average student right now pays anywhere between about $30 and $85 per year in copyright licenses,” says Romanow. “Rolling it down to $26 actually saves the student money. That’s something that’s not discussed anywhere and no one wants to discuss.”

Romanow’s figures reflect the per-page copying fee of the interim license, which charged students 10 cents per copied page, the bulk of which are used for coursepacks. He states that in a coursepack-heavy discipline such as dentistry or medicine, students can use up to 800 and 1 000 pages of copied material.

However, Geist, who also holds the position of Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, suggests that the increase in fees is not congruent with how much material universities are using from Access Copyright’s repertoire. Geist maintains that students are more likely to use free materials such as open-access and public-domain scholarly articles that are searchable through Google Scholar, or digital databases that universities already pay a separate licensing fee for. As for printed materials, such as coursepacks and handouts, many universities, such as UBC, have spent the past year handling their own copyright licenses with success.

“There is simply no need for the Access Copyright license because [universities] already have, in some instances, free alternatives — in other instances, paid-for alternatives — but none of them involve Access Copyright,” says Geist. “And yet, all of those students are going to be asked to and be required to pay fees to Access Copyright for a license that they simply don’t need or use.”

While the members of Access Copyright, an organization governed by a board of publishers and creators, are framing the argument around whether or not material should be paid for, critics of the deal say it is ultimately about who should be paid.

“This is never about whether or not there is going to be compensation for works that are used on campus,” says Geist. “The issue is only whether or not we still need the Access Copyright model to do that.”

At the time of printing, UVic’s copyright office was unable to comment

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