Friday, August 20, 2010

those pesky bills

Last month, the University of Ottawa Press announced that it was making 36 of its backlist titles available for free as Open Access licensed downloads.

The news release announcing the launch describes it as "part of the University of Ottawa’s open access program, which includes a commitment to make research easier to consult through its institutional repository, to provide funds to researchers aiming to publish their work in open access journals, and to award grants for research on the open access movement."

As a former student at the University of Ottawa (1984-86, go Gee Gees!, Tabaret tabernac), I'm proud of UOP for their dedication to the backlist authors who will undoubtedly benefit from a wider audience after this move. I am also pleased to note that UOP worked very hard to clear the rights with those authors before launching this online venture.

That said, I'm not just a former student; I'm also an independent professional author with ongoing interests in protection for creators under copyright, new business models for established and emerging publishers and the economic survival of independent professional content creation. My admiration for UOP extends, then, to cover the realism and pragmatism with which they have approached this project.

Open Access advocate Russell McOrmond has today published an interesting essay on what he calls Peer Production in the post secondary educational context. I have many disagreements with Russell, beginning with who is doing all the whining in the copyright debate, but I have no problem following him on his theoretical journey to the land of an all-Open Access educational curriculum. No problem, that is, as long as we recognize that it is theoretical.

Earlier this week, consumer advocate Michael Geist (coincidentally, a professor at the University of Ottawa) bristled publicly at my suggestion that prematurely adopting a policy of Open Access-only curriculum, even on a class by class basis, was shockingly arbitrary and irresponsible. Dr. Geist went to great pains to prove it is indeed possible to teach classes (at law school) without any collectively licensed materials.

And I'm glad it's possible. But possible and practical are two different things. The freeness of Open Access is possible because the authors of the works being freely accessed are compensated in ways other than traditional pay-per-use or royalty structures. Often their research grants are expected to also cover the traditional compensation a writer might expect for writing.

The Wikipedia link on Open Access above also tells us that many of the traditional costs of publishing work (the selection, editing, proofing, etc.) are covered with fees paid by the authors themselves toward the publication of the work. Presumably, the fee the author pays to be published in OA is somehow made up for through the up front compensation she has already received prior to writing.

As complicated as all that sounds, one thing should be clear... Open Access does not involve the sudden cessation of money changing hands. Providing research and published writing for free is an expensive venture. Since professor salaries are negotiated in part on the amount and value of research and publishing done by the professor, we can expect any large-scale adoption of Open Access or peer production to include a transfer of traditional royalty, advance and licensing costs into the salary line of university budgets. Where the revenue will come from for that increase is a bit of a mystery, but students hoping for cheaper education in a world of Open Access might not want to get their hopes up.

Why not? Because even in Open Access, there is no free lunch.

Commenting to Quill & Quire on the occasion of the University of Ottawa Press Open Access experiment, Rebecca Ross (UOP's e-book coordinator) dropped an inevitable caveat:

However, the press has no plans to make its most popular academic textbooks available for free. “If a book is still really popular for courses, it’s not going to go Open Access at this stage,” Ross says. “We’re not yet an Open Access press.... We still have to pay the bills and make revenue from what we’re publishing.”

I hear you, UOP. I hear you.


Sandy Crawley said...


I deeply appreciate your clarity on the issue of compensation for creative work made available for the purposes of education. I know I will be considered a curmudgeon in some circles for pointing out (again) that the only practical way to ensure access to the broad range of materials creative academics might require to fulfill their function of stimulating higher learning is through collective licensing. I say it because certain anonymous contributors to the examination of the issue on Professor Geist's informative blog keep repeating that educational materials should be licensed individually. This is at least as Cockamaimee as the idea that ISPs should be collecting data to enable royalties to be tracked. Imagine!

Darryl said...

Hi Sandy. I really don't think anyone including Geist, is disagreeing with you on this. The issue, I believe, is the price that AC is asking and what they are presuming to cover for it. Should institutions be paying for content that is on the public Internet? Especially when they do not reproduce the content, but merely direct students to it via a web link? I don't think so, but AC's proposed teriff suggests otherwise. Content which is on the internet but behind paywalls, and most other forms of digital content already requires direct negotiations with the publisher so the AC licence is irrelivent.

There is very little digital content that I can see for which an AC licence should be applicable. More and more teaching material is of this form, and yet AC is still charging more!

I think educational institutions would like nothing more than to come to a reasonable resolution with AC, but what AC has put forward is far from that. To walk away from the table is really the only card they have to play in negotiating. Or do you think that AC should be able to ask any price and it should be accepted without question?

Darryl said...

based on a post on geist site I did a little more digging.

There were 1112370 post secondary students last year. 24252 of which were community college students. Applying $45 for each university student and $35 for each college yields a total of $49.8M which is 50% greater than the total royalty revenue AC received for everything last year. Add to that the $5.16 they now are entitled to for the roughly 3.7 million K-12 kids and you will have almost $70M which is over a 200% increase in revenue over last year. Nice work if you can get it! That doesn't even count their corporate royalties which I couldn't begin to estimate.

When good arguments are made by Geist and Knopf and others for a reduction in AC royalties because of material coming from other sources, and AC makes such a preposterous demand for a huge increase, what is unreasonable about suggesting that the licensees walk away from the table? Seems to me it only makes good business sense to do so.

John said...


Fantastic, really. As I wrote on the Geist blog just now:

Looks like you have proven the much touted 1300% increase is a work of science fiction intended to scare the public into thinking greedy artists were trying to gouge poor students. Even your accusation of 200% increase is dependent on including K-12 licneses in the tariff, which of course it does no cover.

I can't imagine why anyone would want to spin such an obvious falsehood, but there you go.

A really close look at AC annual reports for the last five years shows decreasing admin costs, increased efficiency in distribution and transactional (per-use) licensing, even as the shift from print to digital (which AC is only now broadly licensing through its tariff proposal, accounting for the revenue gap you've identified) makes only a small impact on revenues.

Far from a money grab, AC's tariff proposal looks more and more like a reasonable request based on responsible research into actual usage in the educational context.

Darryl said...

John, you know as well as I do that the 1300% figure is based on per student increase from $3.39 to $45. 45/3.39=13.27 or 1327%. All right. Done with the math lesson.

The reason the net is only 200% is because they are also dropping the 10 cent/page fee they were previously charging for course packs. Why are they dropping it? Well, because they are losing revenue from it as universities stop using these course packs. Leaving things as they are they will soon find they are left with nothing BUT the $3.39/student fee. They are trying to beat fate by getting rid of the course pack charge now and replacing it with an inflated per student charge.

The only science fiction here is your defence of AC. How you see even a 200% change is fees for post secondary institutions with onerous reporting requirements as a 'deal' is beyond me. A 'deal' for AC perhaps, but not for students or for universities. As I've suggested, most digital content is either free or negotiated directly with the publisher. The amount of material covered by AC fees is diminishing. Agree or not? How does AC, or you, justify such a massive increase within that context?

John said...


Again, thanks for proving the 1300% increase is a lie. I agree with your math. Intentionally ignoring one of the key variables does indeed show a 1300% increase.

The diminishing use of coursepacks (unproven, by the way -- mere speculation) means nothing. AC's licenses are pay-per-use. Do you not believe that those who put copyright materials to commercial use should pay for them?

So, the world looks to be moving from terrible photocopied coursepacks to digital copies of the same materials. Only a huckster would try to suggest that this move somehow means payment is no longer necessary.

Access Copyright represents creators and publishers in their collective copyright licenses. Expecting AC to stay only in the photocopier age as usage moves digital is, well, kind of unfair, wouldn't you say?

I know Geist talks big about fair-for-all. What does that mean exactly, when a collective is demonized for following the market?

Darryl said...

Jeeez John, you like to put your own spin on things even more.

The 1300% increase is on "day to day" photocopying for which there has not been any requirement that I am aware of to track. Now detailed tracking is required.

The course packs which were tracked, and were easier to do so, are now gone. But they were on their way out anyway.

There is still no justification for such an increase. Be it 200% or 1300%. Indeed no one, including you, has even attempted to put one forward. A good argument has been made that this fee should actually go down, and the new tracking requirements definitely looks like a burden.

Your only retort is that authors need to be paid. John. No one is disputing that. The point is that they should be paid what is fair. NO MORE. Instead of chastising Geist and others for suggesting that universities CONSIDER walking away, why don't you make the case for AC and tell us why they actually deserve this increase. even at the 150% that you seem willing to accept.

Car analogies and IP seam to go together a lot. For better or for worse. Tell me. If your insurance company came back to you after years with a spotless driving record and no new accidents, (And your were driving less) and told you your rates were going to be 150% of what they were, would you blindly write them a cheque, or would you tell them to stuff it and go find another insurance company?

John said...

I love it. From 1300% to 200% to 150% without a blush. And even the 150% has no basis in fact.

Any increase, whatever the real number (and it sure keeps getting lower) is tied to increased use. AC will do its best to prove that increase is real. You should show up at the public hearings and prove it's not. I encourage you to. Please, please, show up in Ottawa and give the Copyright Board your lesson in mathematics.

Reporting requirements are not new. If you won't let AC in to track use, you need to report on it. Reasonable? I'll bet the CB thinks so.

Nothing is going down in the education market, so I'm not sure how to take your insurance analogy -- other than as the latest lame attempt to suggest the AC repertoire is not in use.

Prove it, at the Copyright Board, and you win this argument. Otherwise, surely you have something else to do.

Oh, wait... nevermind.

Darryl said...

John, I identified where all three of those figures came from in my previous comment. The math demonstrates pretty well that they are all well founded in fact. Too bad you don't read as well as write. Your argument however has a bit of a flat earther denialism air about it though.

As for reporting requirements. It's been a few years, but I don't recall having to report how I used the photocopier in the library for the copies I made as a student. That generally is what the $3.39 covered isn't it. The course packs were all reported by the university bookstore that assembled them. They of course only had to report the works they copied and owed royalties on. They did not have to report all the books they sold too, and no one else usually needed to report anything. It was all done through the bookstore. These new requirements force everyone to report everything. even where no royalties are owed. Are you really arguing that this is NOT more burdensome then previous?

Even if nothing were going down the 150% insurance analogy would still hold, but the fact is that Geist and others make a reasonable case that it is going down, and the AC financial statements for the last few years showing a drop in revenue from institutions supports this. What exactly do you think makes this a "lame" argument. The fact that you don't want to accept it? Now THAT is lame!

Critics have made reasonable arguments that what AC wants is excessive. Rather than simply attacking the critics with unrelated comments like "they can afford it" or "creators need to be paid" which no one is arguing against, or accusing them of lying with the 1300% figure which you know perfectly well where it comes from, simply tell us why 150% or a 200% or a 1300% increase (how ever you want to mash the numbers) is reasonable.

John said...


Critics with reasonable arguments are welcome to follow due process to protest the AC tariff. I have no objection to that whatsoever. I honour the process.

Relentless blog commenters with a terrifyingly slippery grasp of the issues (and basic math) deserve little more than my good-humoured contempt.

AC claims the rate they are requesting is justifiable by usage. I am more than happy to have the Copyright Board rule on that claim.

As a professional writer and someone with tuition in both my past and future, I look forward to a reasoned and balanced ruling.

Crockett said...

John, I appreciate your invitation to present various viewpoints at the Copyright Board. Now if you could tell your AC buddies to play along with your enlightened views, that would be also be much appreciated ...

"The continuing attempts by the copyright collective [AC] to exclude 99 of the 101 objectors to its proposal and subsequent demand for an interim tariff to be set by the Copyright Board."