Thursday, May 31, 2012

the freecult literature grab at York University

As I've tried to point out in the last few postings here, there is a small but organized (and very loud) chapter of the worldwide freecult here in Canada, and it has recently taken aim at the copyright royalties that writers make through collective licensing of our work in education. The freecult will say (out of one side of its mouth) that it doesn't hate copyright, per se; it just wants to tweak copyright slightly to make knowledge easier to access.

Out the other side of its mouth, of course, the freecult calls writers and publisher greedy for wanting royalties from education at all, and it lobbies government relentlessly to weaken copyright protection for artists, and to increase copyright exceptions to the point where the law is more exception than protection. The freecult has no real interest in tweaking copyright, unless the tweak can be accomplished with a sledgehammer.You'll have to ask freecult members themselves to explain their weird political motivation for all this anti-artist activity. I've never understood it myself.

At issue is a recent model licence agreement signed between Access Copyright (a collective of professional writers, visual artists and publishers in Canada) and the associations representing both universities and community colleges across the country (the AUCC and ACCC). These groups sat down in good faith at a negotiating table and banged out collective rates for the AC repertoire as it is used in schools. That repertoire represents 22 million individual works. Essentially, it contains the current collection of Canadian literature, and it is always expanding as new works are written and published.

Despite the agreements being reached by those charged with making these decisions, the freecult is currently spreading all sorts of misinformation about copyright in an attempt to intimidate individual schools away from ratifying the agreement. Yesterday, I noted that York University drank the shameful freecult kool-aid (tm), and declared it would not re-up its licence with Access Copyright. York claims it will be able to offer the same level of service to students and faculty at a much lower price, with the same amount of requested material, while still paying Canadian writers and publishers.

Can their claim be true?

Well, no, it can't. Here's why not.

Let's say a York professor wants to teach a survey course in the short fiction of contemporary Canadian literature. The professor prepares a reading list for her students. She wants them to read selections of individual short stories from the following works:

And Also Sharks, by Jessica Westhead (Cormorant Books)
The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie (HarperCollins)
The Divinity Gene, by Matthew J. Trafford (Douglas & McIntyre)
The Meagre Tarmac, by Clark Blaise (Biblioasis)
The Meaning of Children, by Beverly Akerman (Exile)
Up Up Up, by Julie Booker (Anansi)
The Big Dream, by Rebecca Rosenblum (Biblioasis)

and, for good measure Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro (M&S), because every survey course on Canadian short fiction should include some Munro.

That is a list of eight exceptionally good works of Canadian short fiction. Those books were created through long hours of work, mostly unpaid (occasionally, though rarely supported by a small grant). They are all in print, and all for sale as full books for between $18 and $27.

So, York has five options with this reading list:

Option #1 - pay for the books. Cost: $144-$216 per student.

Option #2 - Full clearance for a coursepack collection of photocopied or scanned selections from these books (clearances all handled by Access Copyright). Cost: $26 per student, which includes clearance on all other coursepacks they might need for the rest of the year.

Option #3 - individual clearances for copies from each book. Cost: Who knows? Even if York manages to get through all the work of individual clearances, could it possibly keep the cost per student below $26? Not bloody likely.

Option #4 - The literature grab. York can hope that new definitions of "fair dealing" in copyright will let their prof make all those copies from all those books for all those tuition-paying students without paying any royalties to anyone. York could complicate things even further by not photocopying, and instead just scanning stories digitally to offer them online, also without paying royalties for what is now a digital coursepack. These are highly unlikely freedoms resulting from recent copyright changes, but let's say they do actually happen. The same uses, of the same material, that once brought much needed income to Canadian authors now no longer do. Cost: all together, millions of dollars annually to Canadian writing and publishing. What's fair in that "fair dealing?"

Option #5 - cancel the survey course in Canadian short fiction, and lay off the prof since she didn't have tenure anyway and times are hard, budgetwise, you know, sorry 'bout that. Cost: Canadian students don't read Canadian writers.

As I wrote yesterday - welcome to the future of education in Canada.

Thanks freecult! You've done wonders for access to knowledge, and for the health of Canadian culture.

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Just an FYI to Canada's writers and publishers - the President of York University can be reached here:

Dr. Mamdouh Shoukri, President and Vice-Chancellor

Office of the President
1050 York Research Tower
York University
4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Phone: 416-736-5200
Fax: 416-736-5641

Keep it classy, please. We are guardians of language.


Stan Witkoski said...

"Option #3 - individual clearances for copies from each book. Cost: Who knows? Even if York manages to get through all the work of individual clearances, could it possibly keep the cost per student below $26? Not bloody likely"

Perhaps they do know, and this is what they based their decision on. Perhaps you should investigate this option further before pronouncing judgement. The answer to this question could be quite informative for all parties.

For example HarperCollins give information right on their website for how to get permission. I'm not sure Option #3 is as unreasonable as you make it appear.

John said...


You're welcome to your opinion, but knowing the publishing industry, and the history of Access Copyright, AND the university and college sector as I do, I can say that individual clearances for everything a university needs for a year at less than $26 per student is NOT a bet I would take in a million years.

You are welcome to continue researching.

Stan Witkoski said...

No Thanks. I'm not someone who is making any judgement on whether this is a good or bad decision on the part of the University. I'll leave the further research to the ones who want to make any such claims, but saying things like, 'if you only knew what I know' doesn't offer a lot of credibility to the conclusion.

Without offering up some empirical evidence against #3, my simple opinion is that it cannot be ruled out. It certainly should not be dismissed out of hand no matter how far fetched it may appear to someone. If indeed it is so outlandish, then demonstrating it as such should be fairly simple.

Bill Harnum said...

As a long time academic publisher, I can cofnfirm your view. What the "freecult" wants is a return to the good old days when I was a grad student in the 1970s, when profs just photocopied everything willy nilly, without thiunking about compensation for writers and publishers. Access Copyright was set up as a solution to this kleptocracy, and has worked well for tywenty years.

Bill Harnum

John said...

I'll go you one bteer, Stan, and say if they can do it, no matter the price, then good on them - because my interest is in making sure the rightsholder is properly compensated. The history of collective licensing in Canada leads one (one who bothers to learn the history of collective licensing in Canada) to understand that a collective licence is the best, most affordable solution to clearance issues.

If a school wants to go it alone, AND they actually do manage to make and pay for all their clearances, then I would never complain. My point is that this is almost certainly not that scenario.

I was told on Facebook just yesterday by a York sessional that securing materials at York is a challenge even without this latest fiasco, so the likelihood of the situation improving with the refusal of a collective licence is probably nil.

For empirical evidence, I think my math in the posting is quite suggestive. It's not just about the clearance prices, understand, but the labour involved in getting them. If you have other math on that, I'd love to see it.

Unknown said...

Thinking of Option #3: Harper Collins provides contact information for permission, but there are no links to rates or anything that would allow anyone to set a budget. This means that someone will have to contact each publisher, submit a request for permission and wait several weeks for a reply. Depending on the response, the process may have to be repeated more than once to negotiate use and rates. Someone at the educational institution will have to do that work. My guess is that it would have to be centralized in an administrative or support unit somewhere, and that means overhead expenses including unionized salaries, and possibly additional costs for legal consultation. That work won't come cheap, even if it's a portion of someone's duties. On the other hand, it's a cost that the institution could potentially claim (legitimately or not) is not being passed onto students.

John said...

Thanks Bill.

Of course, the whole point of a collective licence is to allow that freedom for professors. Clear everything in advance and the thought process around what can and can't be used does not reach the level of the classroom.

What York and a very small number of other schools are really attempting here is to download the responsibility for copyright forethought to their faculty. Combine that with budget constraint messages and we could very well be looking at serious academic chill in the humanities (which depend a great deal on copyright clearances).

A terrible scenario York is putting in place.

Stan Witkoski said...

Darrell, you are quite right, though I expect the timing may not be as bad as you suggest.

UBC (another university which has turned down the AC deal) appears to have put a fairly streamlined system into place to acquire clearances on behalf of the faculty. I suspect other Universities opting out would have to have similar systems in place.

Indeed, I could easily see a few (or many) of these universities getting together to create their own common clearing house. This would function much like Access Copyright does in terms of providing bulk clearances with economies of scale, but would do so under terms which are more favourable to the institutions.

I seriously think that if A/C writes off Option #3 as John is so quick to do, then they do so at their own peril. A users' collective which competes directly with A/C may be just around the corner.

John said...

Not sure how much clearer I can be about this. This is not about protecting one method over another, as long as both methods are fair to authors and publishers, and provide value to students and schools. UBC's "streamlined system" doesn't get a rave review from this UBC student.

Why anyone would want to build from scratch a mechanism that already exists is beyond me, but okay.

I don't "write off" option #3. I just know it's not currently working. I've talked to many working academics about the bureaucracy of individual clearance in their administrations, and the picture is far from rosy - coursepacks that don't show up until halfway through a semester (if at all), coursepacks missing content because it could not be easily or freely cleared, etc.

I wait to be pleasantly surprised by sudden and unlikely changes. In the meantime, the loss of any royalty revenue to authors while universities build their own system would be illegal and anti-cultural.

Stan Witkoski said...

Thank you John for that clarification. Honestly from your previous posts it appeared you were making Universities out as villains intent on stealing from the mouths of artists, without any desire to legitimately compensate for the material they use.

If we agree that their motives are not so nefarious, then the most likely other motivation is economic. In this case the reason for building a parallel system from scratch becomes obvious. They think they can get what they want cheaper. It is the same reason for the existence of many parallel systems from phone companies to automobiles to groceries. Competition is a good thing (Unless of course you are the one who previously had a monopoly).

I'm not surprised there are glitches in the system and not everyone is happy. That is common in new systems. However there is no reason that they cannot make it succeed if they make the effort, and that it cannot give at least as good value for their money that A/C can. Obviously they are betting that it can. In the end though having two systems, one content owner run, and the other user run, should provide a good measure of the true market value of the works. I look forward watching how all this transpires.

Thanks for the chat.


John said...


It seems I need to clarify again. I DO think this move by York and a small number of other universities is very cynical and shows a distressing lack of concern for the traditional cultural partnership in Canada. I DO think care for artists' well-being, and economic and cultural rights has been discarded by whoever made this decision at York, UBC et al.

I don't believe a workable alternative system is actually being put in place. I think that is smoke and mirrors, and will rob students of quality education even as it robs artists of royalties.

I believe the dice being rolled here by these institutions have to do with new definitions of fair dealing under Bill C-11. I think it is a gamble they are fated to lose no matter what the freecult gurus are saying, and I think the idea of a publicly funded institution gambling in a way that puts culture and education at risk is really quite despicable.

One can stare at option #3 all one wants, but such an option does not really exist on any campus in Canada, and would not be in the least economical to build. As I said, it is smoke and mirrors - all part of the campaign to have educational use excused from copyright altogether.

Theoretically, yes, such a system would still respect the rights of artists. But I don't live in theory. That's for the freecult. I live in a world in which York students are now disadvantaged despite paying one of the highest tuitions in Canada, York sessionals have had their careers needlessly compromised, and artists who deserve trackable royalties (by law) will not get those royalties.

There is nothing positive about this situation.