Canada’s universities are on the verge of accepting a copyright licensing deal that flies in the face of all reason
Canada’s universities are on the verge of accepting a copyright licensing deal that flies in the face of all reason, agreeing to pay higher fees for the clearance of all sorts of new digital rights—including some that don’t actually exist—despite a major Supreme Court ruling and a fast-approaching copyright reform bill which both suggest they shouldn’t need to make a deal at all. The organization that represents the schools is now attempting to rush through a scheme that harms educators, students and taxpayers by forcing its members to sign on immediately or face retroactive penalties, and unless there’s a much-needed last-minute push from the public, this disastrous agreement is a done deal. The outcome has baffled some Canadian lawyers and professors who have followed the story for years.
In 2004, Canada’s Supreme Court issued a unanimous judgement in a dispute between legal publishers and a law library that changed the shape of copyright in Canada. The decision in CCH Canada Ltd. vs Law Society Of Upper Canada (pdf link) explored the limits of fair dealing (the Canadian analog of fair use) as it pertains to research, establishing several key principles that are strongly in favor of open access to information. The court stated that the term “research”, which is explicitly included as fair dealing under Canadian copyright law, should be broadly interpreted and is not limited to private or non-commercial endeavours—and that if a facility’s general purpose qualifies as research, it is protected under fair dealing even if some people might use the facility to infringe. It was a landmark ruling that, of course, provoked the ire of every collection society and copyright industry player in the country.
But for Canadian universities and public schools, it should have been a windfall. For years they had been paying a per-student fee to the collection society Access Copyright (previously CanCopy) for rights clearance on all the routine xeroxing and other copying that is a part of education. After the CCH ruling, most or all of that qualified as fair dealing, and the schools were in a position to negotiate much lower fees or just stop paying them altogether. Instead, the opposite happened—the schools ended up paying more.
To understand how this is possible, you have to know how the process works. The Copyright Board of Canada has the legal authority to impose copyright tariffs. When Access Copyright wants more money, they go to the board and request a ridiculously high tariff—then negotiate a voluntary rate with the schools, somewhere in between the current fee and the requested tariff. If the schools can get a rate that is lower than the requested tariff, they declare victory—even though they could have presented a much better and more effective fair dealing argument to the board, doubly so following the CCH ruling.
The K-12 public schools were the first to fall and be forced to retroactively accept a higher rate, the burden of which ultimately falls on taxpayers and students. Then, in 2010, Access Copyright moved against the universities, filing for a $45 per-student tariff after the old deal ($3.38/student plus ten cents per page for course packs) expired. Not only that, but by the end of the year they had managed to get the Copyright Board to approve an interim tariff to impose on the universities before reaching a final agreement or determination. A bunch of schools opted out, and started trying to clear their own rights without going through Access Copyright. At this point, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada was in the perfect position to go to the board and assert their fair dealing rights. Not only would they have the backing of the CCH ruling and its generous “research” provisions, they could point to Canada’s soon-to-be-passed copyright reform bill, which as currently written will specifically add “education” to the definition of fair dealing.
For some reason, apart from a few minor objections as the board continued to make procedural rulings against them, they haven’t fought back very hard, or at least not very effectively—and the process has been dragging on and on. They entered into preliminary negotiations with Access Copyright at the beginning of this year, but then suddenly something completely unexpected happened: at the end of January, the University of Toronto and Western University announced that they had cut their own deal with the collection society at $27.50 per student. Again, they declared victory because it was lower than the proposed $45—a laughable figure that the Copyright Board never would have granted. The capitulation of two major universities took the already-meager wind out of the AUCC’s sails, and now they’ve negotiated an ever-so-slightly better (but still, in the big picture, very bad) rate for universities and colleges across Canada.
In addition to the rates that went up when they should have gone down, there are plenty of other problems with both deals. Howard Knopf, a Canadian copyright lawyer, points out that Access Copyright is charging for ridiculous rights that don’t even exist, such as hyperlinking and displaying documents on a screen. University of Toronto law professor Ariel Katz, another outspoken critic of the deal, highlights several onerous provisions that will seriously interfere with the ability of professors to do their job: