A well-written and impressively balanced article in the University of Toronto's student newspaper, The Varsity*, this week paints a portrait of a bureaucratic U of T administration so set on appearing concerned for the pocketbooks of their students they are willing to sink a core service into legal uncertainty, confusion and inadequacy.
U of T, like a number of other large universities in Canada has recently refused to sign a collective licensing agreement with the copyright agency representing Canadian writers and publishers. The university claims changes to Canada's copyright landscape make it possible for a one-person copyright office on campus to clear the rights for all the materials professors intend to copy for their courses, and that millions of copies they used to pay for are now free. It should be noted that the refusal of the post-secondary sector to licence their huge industrial copying practices will cost Canadian writers and publishers tens of millions of dollars in earned revenue annually. This is a potentially crippling blow to Canadian cultural workers, and will almost certainly result in a net loss of Canadian content for Canadian educators.
By cancelling their longstanding relationship with Canadian authors and publishers, U of T was able to refund each one of their students $13 in fees previously collected. It is unclear if they actually cut a $13 cheque for each and every student, or how much that Rob Fordian populist action cost them in administration expenses.
What is clear from the Varsity article is that copyright has NOT been simplified nor made cheaper at U of T. The administration has added costly new staff, is planning to add even more staff, and is not able to keep up with copying demand from their faculty.
"Numerous students have reported instances of professors explaining to their classes that they must remove content from Blackboard, and are unclear when or if this material can be reposted. In one instance a student reported an instructor emailing the material from a personal account so as to avoid the new copyright guidelines."Materials erased or made unavailable to tuition-paying students, reading lists gutted, rumours of actionable copyright infringement by faculty? How is this better than paying a perfectly affordable licence required by law?
The University of Toronto's licence requirement in the last year was approximately $1.5 million. That represents blanket clearance for massive amounts of photocopying for a student population of approximately 70,000, who paid a combined $847 million in tuition and fees just to attend the university. Considering U of T realized an in-year surplus of $173 million (which adds to an accumulated surplus in the billions), there is little logic in spending what looks like more money for less access in a legally chaotic landscape when they could easily afford a permissive blanket licence by spending less than 1% of their annual surplus. A bargain and... you know... legal.
The chickens of free culture theory have come home to roost. Thanks to the Varsity for investigating and revealing this situation. Reminds me of the good old Naomi Klein days.
* When I was earning my two U of T degrees in the late 80s and early 90s, I worked as an arts reporter and photographer at The Varsity, famously (to me, anyway) annoying literary legend Mordecai Richler in my attempt to get a great photo of him.