Finding a Way out of the Copyright Mess

At last week’s Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities in Victoria, BC, we had printed and handed out our take on the ongoing, divisive debate currently taking place around Access Copyright and the use of books in the academic setting. We want to share this open letter to everyone interested here, and we invite you to add your two cents in the comments.

Finding a Way out of the Copyright Mess, Or, Fair Dealing is Not Free Dealing: A View from an Independent Canadian Academic Publisher

Universities (and professors) and academic publishers (and authors) are embroiled in a divisive dispute about copyright. The tendency has been for each group to see the other as being on opposing sides, often ignoring that some — professors and authors — are often one and the same people. Just as significant is that everyone in this dispute shares a common goal: the advancement of knowledge.

For professors and teachers, a central motive and interest in writing and publishing is the “advancement of knowledge [which] depends on free and open exchange of ideas and information … when academics assert copyright it is to protect academic freedom, scholarly integrity and open communication” (CAUT Fair Dealing Advisory 2008).

Academic publishers and authors are also committed to the advancement of knowledge — if they were not, they wouldn’t be involved in writing and publishing. The advancement of knowledge depends on the authors who compose/create it and the publishers who package and disseminate it. Publishers and authors assert copyright as one way to ensure that they are paid for the work they do.

No matter how it is cut, knowledge and its advancement and exchange do not just happen. Creating and disseminating knowledge requires real work by real people — professors and researchers create knowledge, while editors, designers, publicists, administrators and salespeople (collectively known as publishers) disseminate knowledge. If they are not adequately compensated for their labour, publishers and authors simply cannot continue to do their work, and avenues for disseminating knowledge will soon dry up. In an ideal world, knowledge would be completely free and open; in an ideal world, we’d all be fairly and decently compensated for our work.

In the academic setting, professors and teachers are paid by their institutions to create knowledge. Those who work in publishing are paid for their work through the purchase of books and parts of books. Copyright fees, the price for using sections of books, are part of the wages to publishers and authors. For a small publisher, payments for copyright are significant — often enough to support a full-time employee. Furthermore, fees collected for copyright are actually very modest: in the context of all post-secondary budgets, these fees would be a fraction of a percentage point. That is, for small publishers and most authors, copyright payments are not some kind of gravy train.

The latest round in the long-running copyright mess has been precipitated, first of all, by the new copyright act. Its (deliberately) vague definition of education as fair dealing has pushed all of us onto a judicial road that can be easily travelled only by those with deep pockets. Yet, it is not a road we necessarily have to be on. Advocating for all educational uses as exempt from copyright payment is not an answer to legislative vagueness.

Otherwise, the use of copyright material is being governed through an agreement negotiated between Access Copyright, the collectively owned, non-profit organization of 600-plus publishers and 10,000-plus authors, and AUCC, the association that represents universities. This current agreement may contain some problematic elements, but such issues should be resolved through a collaborative rather than an antagonistic process.

So, how can publishers and academics agree together on fair compensation for the use of published material? To put this question in an analogous context: professors might consider how much of something they have written (and had published) could be reproduced without quotation marks and a citation. Answering that question might go a long way to finding a compromise amongst all of us.

Professors, teachers, authors and publishers have two crucial common interests: ensuring that the ideas and work on which the advancement of knowledge depends are created and disseminated, and ensuring that we all make a decent living while doing so. We need to find a way to cooperatively achieve both of these goals.

Currently, legislation and litigation are driving this process — slow, adversarial and expensive means to an end that puts decisions in the hands of judges and politicians. In the larger political context, we need to keep in mind that public education is under attack, and we must not let the copyright issue divide us and distract us from our common commitment to public education. Cooperative and community-minded collaboration amongst professors, teachers, administrators, publishers and authors to determine how published material will be used and how its originators will be compensated is necessary.

Posted on June 13th, 2013

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