Monday, February 25, 2008

catching up -- Access, Friedland, BCBC, et al

I've been silent for awhile. A literal loss of voice, due to illness. I'm better now, but at the beginning of what I hope will be a productive week of creative writing, so don't expect too many comment section swordfights from me.

I want to make a couple of points, surprisingly, designed to keep professional creator concerns (as I see them) in the debate.

First, the Friedland Report:

I notice there was a minor flurry of comment from the usual sources last week when Access Copyright, Canada's copyright licensing agency, released a report by an independent consultant who had been asked to study their royalty distribution system. The association I administer, PWAC (the Professional Writers Association of Canada) was one of a few creator groups who had asked AC to do this study. The Writers Union of Canada (TWUC) was another.

Well, the study was done, the report is now out, along with comments and response from Access Copyright's board of directors. Anyone is free to go and read the report online at the Access Copyright website (among other places).

My personal view is that Access Copyright responded with great professionalism and responsibility to a serious request from their affiliate organizations. Furthermore, they did so publicly in the middle of a reform debate that often sees them criticized for their very existence, let alone potential administrative flaws they might need to address. I commend the agency and all the publisher and professional creators on their board of directors for good, hard work on this study. As a professsional writer and an AC creator affiliate, I was part of the call for the study, I was interviewed by Dr. Martin Friedland (the independent consultant), and I have read the report and AC's response in full. I am very satisfied with the process, and with AC's response.

Independent Report Blasts Access Copyright Over Lack of Transparency, screams the headline on Michael Geist's blog, and then Geist goes on to call the Friedland report "a stunning indictment of the copyright collective..."

As someone who apparently was doing the blasting and indicting, I find the tone of Geist's report absolutely baffling. And I'm really just not sure what Geist believes is being proven by the report, other than what we already know -- AC needs to make some changes, has received recommendations for doing so and is, in fact, doing so.

I KNOW about the perceived inequities in the distribution structure at AC. I also know that the example Geist uses of these inequities, that "in the distribution for 2005 under the federal government licence, the publishers received $188,256 for scholarly journals and the creators received nothing," can be said to have more to do with Michael Geist than it does with Access Copyright. Professional writers who do not work for universities have recognized for many years the poor precedent for our own business created by contributors to scholarly journals (professors, mainly) who regularly sign away reprographic rights to the publishers of the journals. That is a terrible inequity, and I wonder why they allow it, considering they have the privilegd position of being in a limited pool of experts in their subject.

Anyway, I anticipate AC will survive their "indictment" and live to licence another day.

Prof. Laura Murray over at also takes a run at AC after the release of the Friedland report, and her agenda is very clearly spelled out. For her, the report outlines a "legitimacy probem" at Access Copyright, one that not only affects the affiliated creators, but users as well. "How can I tell my students to shell out $50 for a coursepack," she writes, "when I *know* that the money isn’t being allotted in a logical way? I don’t see how that could be ethical."

First of all, are coursepacks really $50? Does AC get $50 per coursepack to distribute back to the creators and publishers? My sense is that AC gets a very small portion of the full coursepack price, while the copy shop that creates them, and the campus bookstore that sells them get the lion's share of the price. I wonder how Dr. Murray's ethics feel about that distribution of money? This very inaccurate suggestion about the price of coursepack licenses has a distinctly herringish smell.

I can assure Dr. Murray that no creator affiliate I've ever talked to thinks AC's distribution complexity, or our various disagreements with it, should have any impact on the central question of whether or not educational licensing of copyright-protected materials is justifiable. I find the fact that Murray's posting went directly to this question very revealing indeed. Also revealing is her very first paragraph, which states:

"I’ve been a critic of Access Copyright for quite some time, but I always figured (hoped?) the main problem was transparency: mechanisms and principles for allotting revenues were not made public, and that bothered me as a matter of principle."

As a long-time critic of AC, she never bothered to get a copy of their Annual Report and study the distribution system? Wow.

Finally, there was also a lot of noise about the big telecoms coming out in favour of copyright reform. Dr Geist writes of the Business Coalition for Balanced Copyright:

"it appears that business, education, consumer, and many creator groups are moving toward a consensus around Canadian copyright policies that would meet the requirements of the World Intellectual Property Organization's Internet treaties, preserve consumer rights over their personal property, and provide Internet and technology companies with a legal framework that fosters greater innovation."

If that end result was the actual and only end result of copyright reform, then I think Geist wouldn't have to put the qualifier "many" in front of "creator groups." I don't know that the approximately 100,000 professional Canadian creators (not covered by Geist's "many"), who are dependent on their creative work for their entire livelihoods, are at all surprised that businesses in the business of selling access are positioning themselves against copyright holders. We're kind of used to that.

How many in a "many," btw?


Geof said...

"are coursepacks really $50? Does AC get $50 per coursepack to distribute back to the creators and publishers?"

Only the cheap coursepacks are $50. I have paid up to $189. That one has perhaps 900 pages (43 articles at say 20 pages each). If it were a real book, the price might not be so far out of line. But it's not a real book. It's a bound collection of photocopies, many of them poorly reproduced or marred by highlighting, underlining, and missing text. There are no pages numbers for finding individual articles. But what really hurts is the explanation that the pack was produced

"under license from Access Copyright and other copyright holders. Any further resale or copying is strictly prohibited. No Refunds or Exchanges."

I have read that this is not true: that there are no grounds for preventing resale. But the university and student bookstores enforce this regardless, effectively doubling or tripling the cost. Multiply that by several courses, add in regular textbooks... pretty soon you're talking about real money.

Some professors try to protect their students, e.g. by distributing photocopies or by placing books on short-term reserve at the library so that students can make the photocopies themselves for a fraction the price.

John said...


You won't get an argument out of me against the idea that post-secondary education in Canada is expensive. I've been through the student-debt meat grinder myself, on a writer's salary.

I guess I'm confused why it's only the reasonable license fees funneled back to the original creators and publishers of the valuable texts you use in your education that cause you pain.

Writers and publishers have not determined the $189 cost of your very expensive coursepack. Whoever made the decision to use a coursepack in the first place is as great a contributor to that cost.

Obviously, the digital age is going to remove much of these heavy, physical, paper-and-toner costs from the average student -- but why does that mean the cost of licensed use of valuable educational materials (benefiting from heavy investment by writers and publishers) should also be removed? They are separate things.

I would be very interested to see if the average cost for a degree goes down after the age of coursepacks. Do you think the cost would go down if educators got their Publicly Available Material exception to copyright?

I commend the profs who try to protect their students in the way you have suggested, because the photocopying you will do of that reserved book is covered by an Access Copyright license. Win win.

Don't blame AC for coursepacks. They didn't invent them.

Geof said...

I'm not making any claims about license fees or how much of that money goes to Access Copyright. I suspect it's quite a lot. But my focus was on the cost to students, not where the money goes. You asked whether coursepacks really cost $50. Since you're involved with Access Copyright, I thought it would be useful for you to understand what students pay and what they get for their money.

It makes sense that scholars are unconcerned with royalties. They aren't in the same boat as authors like yourself - they don't sell books or articles to make a living. For them, reputation and distribution are far more important than royalties; as it stands, copyright restrictions hinder these things. Many are moving to open access because it benefits them, the public, and scholarship at large.

The fact that AC collects fees for scholarly works but scholars don't get the money creates a legitimacy problem. But I don't think the solution is to start paying scholars: it is to open up the results of scholarly research and stop collecting money for it.

This should not undercut the legitimacy of Access Copyright for other works. As I said, academia operates under a different model. In other situations, compulsory licensing can be a good approach - though I haven't found you or the CCC persuasive in your arguments for educational licensing.

I would still really like to know whether the resale restriction is legitimate. I don't see how it can be, and certainly don't think it should be. Inaccurate claims about copyright - likely including this - are my biggest beef with AC.

John said...


As I've tried to express to Russell many a time, I encourage you and yours to go crazy with the open access model. I'll be trying it myself, I'm sure. Nothing about it bothers me in the slightest. If all the scholarship in Canada were to go open access tomorrow, so be it. In the meantime, it hasn't. There are still educational publishers investing heavily in your business, and by the right of law they should be compensated for their investment through licensing.

Your argument about a legitimacy problem is very troubling to me, especially considering your citizenship in the tribe of scholars. Aren't you folks supposed to be about seeking truth? Instead, here, you seem to be campaigning for an established and inflexible position against educational licensing. What is illegitimate about license fees flowing back to the publishers of scholarly journals, when the scholars have assigned the rights to those fees to those publishers? Why would a prominent and diligent scholar like Geist gloss over that rather important detail in his comments about Access Copyright?

I want to repeat -- I am NOT against open access. I am simply for strong copyright. The two need not be mutually exclusive.

I return to my question about the actual cost of education. Profit margins in writing and publishing are miniscule. The costs of textbooks and coursepacks reflect quite accurately the real costs of production. Even in a total open access system, the open access writers and publishers of scholarly work will not be expected to donate their skills, time and expertise. There will be real costs involved, and if they aren't on AC's balance sheet, they'll be somewhere else. If there is a legitimacy problem anywhere here, it is in the "cost to the student" argument, because I doubt anything will change for the better in that corner.

I too wish it would change. I have kids who will go to college. But I really doubt it will change, because the economics are inflexible.

Now, you want to talk about government-subsidized education, that's a whole 'nother happy, hopeful future.

Geof said...

I don't want to get into a big debate about legitimacy. My remark was essentially a response to you when you wrote:

"Professional writers who do not work for universities have recognized for many years the poor precedent for our own business created by contributors to scholarly journals . . . who regularly sign away reprographic rights to the publishers of the journals. That is a terrible inequity"

That sounds a legitimacy problem to me. It originates in the journal system, not in AC's licensing regime. But given that the problem exists, AC's licensing does nothing for scholarly creators and appears illegitimate.

I was shocked when I discovered the economics of journal publishing. You write that under an open access system "writers and publishers of scholarly work will not be expected to donate their skills, time and expertise." In fact, scholars are not paid for their articles, nor are they paid to peer-review the articles of others. Publishers accumulate the copyrights and sell copies back to universities at tremendous profit (which they are fighting tooth and nail to maintain). Effectively the government is already funding publication. See danah boyd for further explanation.

The upshot is that there are tremendous savings to be had. I'll do a rough estimate of what they might be under an open access regime. Say my 900-page coursepack was published on Lulu. At Lulu, publishing costs are $4.53 + 2 cents per page. Total: $22.53. I don't know what labor would cost to collect the articles; I'll say $50/hr (to account for employment benefits and university resources) for 15 hours = $750. Divide by students in the class (14) to get almost $54 each. Total publishing cost is about $76. That's a savings of over $110 (which, if it went to royalties, would amount to about 12 cents a page). Based on this estimate, coursepacks based on scholarly works could cost less than half what they do now. Add better economies of scale because most classes are much larger than 14, the option of resale, easier compilation for electronic copies and the choice to acquire the material online, and the cost plummets.

The biggest benefit to open access, however, is probably access, not cost. Payment - no matter how low the amount - entails high transaction costs. Finding open access material through Google is often orders of magnitudes faster and more effective than using commercial journal search engines.

John said...

Alright, no big debate on legitimacy. I wish I hadn't been the first to mention it. Oh, wait, I wasn't.

I'm a bit confused by your numbers. They seem inaccurate for a couple of reasons. First, you say that scholars are not paid for their writing or peer review work. More accurately, you should probably say they aren't paid by the publisher. They are compensated for this work, but that compensation doesn't enter into your calculations here. Fair enough. As an advocate for professional writers, I would quite naturally stand with scholars in a demand for compensation from the publishers, or for greater compensation from their institutions to make up that shortfall.

Secondly, your $750 for administrative labour costs seems quite artificially low, and I think you'd get a real argument from college admin staff on the value of this work. I think everyone in the equation should be fairly paid.

Neverthelesss, I can't argue there wouldn't be some cost savings in a straight calculation of cost for a single copy of a journal on Lulu, compared to one published by an established educational publisher, if the reprographic license is removed (as it would be in the open access model). Clearly, there would be some savings in that calculation. This is a standard print-on-demand cost calculation.

My question is not about single copy costs -- it's about the overall cost to the student of their education. I don't have the same faith you seem to have that this would go down.

Finally, since you've backed away from the legitimacy question, I don't see how any of this can suggest that AC collecting royalties for educational use of non-scholarly work is in any way wrong.

John said...

And Geof, I want to thank you for pointing me to the danah boyd blog piece on academic publishing. Both the original piece and the many informed (and ill-informed) comments that follow it show just how complicated and extremely important all this stuff is. I am really quite close to a number of professional scholars in my life, and I think I have a good sense of their particular frustrations.

As I read the boyd page, I don't see any particularly convincing calls for total elimination of one of the traditional partners in academia -- only frustration at how difficult the transtion to new models can be. I think we all share that frustration, and I would suggest most of us (except of course the evil corporations who resemble those tripod alien thingees from War of the Worlds) would like to work together through the complications.

That becomes increasingly difficult in a public debate characterized by dismissiveness -- e.g. academic publishers are the blacksmiths and buggy whip manufacturers of our time.

Geof said...

My figures could be way wrong. I have no idea. As I said, my coursepack is basically a bunch of photocopies, so I figure the work involved is fetching the articles and scanning them into some system that prints the books (which are really quite primitive). If my labor costs are wrong it probably wouldn't make a huge difference, as they will typically be amortized over class sizes larger than my unrepresentative example. If the material was digital (as it would be under open access) there would be no need for scanning, so labor costs would drop dramatically.

Yes, scholars are paid - in part because they write articles. But they don't sell those articles, so they don't need royalties. Under open access, that cost doesn't need to be shifted elsewhere in the system because it's already taken care of. This isn't a zero-sum game: open access and digital distribution really are more efficient. The result should be significant savings.

My remarks about publishers were aimed specifically at those that aren't open access. Journals won't go away - though publishers and paper copies might.

You see "frustration at how difficult the transition to new models can be". I believe the drive towards consolidation, higher prices, and inflated profits among journal publishers took place in the 1990s, just before open access gained momentum. The shift to new models is the solution, not the problem.

"I don't see how any of this can suggest that AC collecting royalties for educational use of non-scholarly work is in any way wrong."

Exactly. That's why I said the issue of scholarly works "should not undercut the legitimacy of Access Copyright for other works." That doesn't mean I support the policy of charging for education. I suspect it's not the best policy from the point of view of the public interest, but I don't see why it would be illegitimate so long as the money goes to creators.

John said...

Thanks for clearing that up, Geof.

Not charging for education is a worthwhile goal. I suspect the economics of that project are way, way more complicated than simply freeing educational materials from the equation. I also suspect the economics of scholarly publishing (even in open access and digitally), are far more complicated than either of us know. Any professional-level publishing for that matter.

Certainly the discussion following the boyd posting suggests that, as does the discussion around Kate Pullinger's opinion piece in today's Guardian (see my latest posting).

Here's a question -- why aren't all university lectures digitally recorded and offered free of tuition on the Internet? And if we get there, how can we justify not giving a degree to someone who fulfils the work requirements of that degree, whether they've paid the tuition or not?