Monday, August 16, 2010
just another brick in the wall
(image courtesy www.grungetextures.com on flickr)
Not all that long ago, every student in a course at university was expected to buy the same textbook. Educational publishers specialized in creating these textbooks, hired scholars and writers to produce them, and regularly updated them.
Enter the photocopier, and many professors decided their students didn't need entire textbooks -- a bit here and there from a number of books would do. The coursepack, an ugly, often horribly photocopied brick of reading was born, and students everywhere bought new glasses.
To compensate educational publishers for the fact that only portions of their books were now being used, universities signed collective license agreements with Access Copyright, a collective of publishers, writers and visual artists. Revenues from the licenses flowed back to the collective and were distributed to the publisher and creator affiliates. Every effort was made to ensure the price paid was fair and the money went to those who deserved it.
Enter the Internet, and educational practice has changed again. Professors now either scan works to create easily transferable digital files, or they simply find articles online and have their students access them that way. Yet the meat of the activity has not changed - Canadian creators and publishers continue to produce excellent materials for use in classrooms; professors continue to use those works; and students continue to learn from them.
Keeping with the times, Access Copyright has recently proposed a tariff covering all uses, photocopied and digital for a simple per-student fee. The tariff is currently before Canada's Copyright Board and will be adjudicated in due time. Unfortunately for Canada's hardworking cultural creators and publishers, not everyone in the education system is keen to do digital business with Access Copyright.
Prominent copyright critic and University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist objects to the tariff. He makes a number of sensational accusations about the proposal -- that it ignores fair dealing, that it requires onerous reporting, but mostly that it costs too much.
Of course, one of the functions of the Copyright Board is to decide fair pricing. Think of the Copyright Board as a slightly less exciting version of baseball arbitration. Access Copyright is saying they are a great pitcher (of established educational content), while critics like Geist say AC’s arm is not worth the money. The arbitrator hears both sides and makes a decision on price that both parties should honour.
Except, Professor Geist has decided to unilaterally forgo arbitration and is instead proposing that education ignore the Copyright Board. Geist recently blogged that it might just be time for Canadian education to “walk away” from Access Copyright’s educational repertoire.
Much of the panic around the cost of the tariff is based on the assumption that students themselves will have to pay the bill. The numbers tell a different story. The cost to provide copyright coverage to all of Canada’s 1.5 million post-sec students has been calculated by critics at $60 million. Yet just one representative Canadian university -- say, the University of Ottawa -- could reasonably pay the fee for all of their full-time students with a tiny 0.2% of their budget. It would be entirely unnecessary for them to pass the cost on to students.
Despite the indisputable affordability, Geist is advocating a walk out. He suggests "with the prospect of such a dramatic increase in costs, education must self-assess to determine whether it actually needs these licences.” He then proudly claims that only open access materials are used in his classroom. What this means, presumably, is that students of Internet law at the University of Ottawa learn only from what Geist can provide for them through licenses that require no compensation to the original creator of the work. In other words, if Geist didn’t write it himself, or it’s not free, he won’t teach it.
This seems a shockingly arbitrary and irresponsible policy that will only place artificial (and highly political) limits on education. Students pay good money for their education. Shouldn’t they get the best for that money, rather than the cheapest and most-aligned to the prof's political leanings?
Geist’s walk-out is a version of the brinkmanship one often finds at the baseball arbitration table. Why pay for proven major league quality when a minor leaguer will come cheap? Yet, how many World Series have been won with minor-league pitching?
Canadian writers and publishers produce educational assets proven through decades of continuous use. If Canada is really focused on leading the knowledge economy, we walk away from such assets at our peril.
Tear down that wall
The Toronto Star has published a strong call for amending Bill C-32 (The Act to Amend the Copyright Act) as it pertains to copyright and educational use. The paper states "in one notable respect the initiative is flawed: the government, lobbied by provincial ministers of education, has included “education” in the bill’s “fair dealing” section of the bill, which allows copying within certain limits." The Star calls for Parliament to "rethink and take a hard look at the fair dealing section when Parliament resumes sitting in the fall and Bill C-32 goes to committee."
I have asked for the same rethink at the committee. Responding to my request for more discussion about a broad educational exception, Heritage Minister James Moore seems open to talking. Just another example of how open and consultative this latest round of copyright reform has been.