Access Copyright: The Globe and Mail’s One-Sided Story

I don’t quite know where to start with John Degen’s attack in the Globe and Mail on the decision of 26 educational institutions (and counting) to opt out of Access Copyright (which collects royalties for Canadian authors mainly from Canadian educational institutions, after taking a healthy cut for administrative purposes). It’s an opinion piece, and he’s expressing his own perspective as a writer (although he certainly doesn’t speak for all writers when he expresses his admiration for AC). But as someone who’s followed this issue for the past year, though not as in depth as some (Howard Knopf is the go-to guy for a blow-by-blow account of this unwinding debacle), I can’t say that I recognize the universities-want-to-stop-paying-writers picture that he paints.

Fair to say, I think, that the Access Copyright-universities battle royale is nowhere near as one-sided as Degen suggests.

What’s missing? A fair accounting would have mentioned that the interim tariff that AC was seeking would have sent university budgets skyrocketing. Knopf  reports that the University of British Columbia from $650,000 per year to $2 million per year. That’s a pretty good reason to reconsider using Access Copyright.

I would’ve also expected to read that Access Copyright was seeking (according to the University of Northern British Columbia) to “identify provision of links to resources and displaying resources on computer screens as ‘copies’.” Oh, and to keep the system running, UNBC says “The new tariff would also require that UNBC provides Access Copyright with unrestricted access to University secure networks, systems and records (e-mails, etc.) to conduct annual surveys of copying activities undertaken by faculty, staff, and students. This particular term is not only extremely invasive and labour intensive but UNBC also considers this unacceptable. We cannot condone this level of intrusion into our operations” (emphasis rightly added by Knopf). Again, that doesn’t make Access Copyright look too good.

(I’d also throw in my own annoyance, as a research and a writer of sorts, that Access Copyright has been allowed effectively to define what is meant by fair dealing – copying about 10% of a work, IIRC. That’s an arbitrary choice reflected nowhere in the Copyright Act.)

As for Degen’s assertion that the decision of these universities (most of Canada’s largest) to withdraw from Access Copyright “represents an unprecedented attack on academic freedom” by banning “certain uses of certain Canadian works [i.e., those covered by Access Copyright] from campus,” two points. First, the actual size of AC’s repertoire is disputed (UNBC claims it’s quite small). So how much of a loss this is remains to be seen. Second, it’s not like these materials aren’t already available through other licences held by universities. And we still have a fair dealing exception in the Copyright Act. I’ll leave the explanation of how that works to Michael Geist (this also links to a good FAQ on what opting out means for universities). Nothing’s been banned. Throwing language like that around doesn’t do your argument any favours.

The biggest problem with Degen’s opinion piece isn’t really his fault. Obviously this is a high-stakes, emotionally charged issue that highlights the upheaval that digital technologies are causing in the publishing industry. As far as I can tell, the Globe and Mail has done little-to-no reporting on an issue that has the potential to add millions of dollars to already-stretched university budgets, increase tuition and disrupt the way that many Canadian writers get paid.

But instead of providing readers with reportage that can allow them to situate Degen (and Knopf, and Geist, and me), they just throw Degen’s opinion out there. That’s a highly irresponsible act of policy bomb throwing from Canada’s supposed paper of record.

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