Decision made on copyright

Returning for the winter semester, students have started to collect their required course materials, including the photocopied course packages popular with many Wilfrid Laurier University instructors.

Due to recent developments regarding license agreements with Access Copyright (AC), a national organization that facilitates copyright licensing used to secure these materials, Laurier and many other universities find themselves faced with a difficult decision.

With the agreements set to expire on Dec. 31, Laurier was forced to choose whether to continue its contract, understanding the possibility of having to pay retroactive royalties to AC in a year or two — costs that would be borne by students.

The other option was to opt out from the agreement and collect course materials by contacting individual publishers and authors, or use textbooks and material available for free on the Internet.

The story thus far

Earlier in the year, AC had proposed a tariff that would change the way they charged for use of materials they licensed. Rather than a flat rate of $3.38 per student annually along with ten cents per page in coursepacks printed, the new tariff would charge a flat rate of $45 per student. The decision was left to the Copyright Board of Canada, which is expected to take at least two years to make a ruling on whether the tariff is acceptable.

“It’s really unreasonable for them to ask for this because Access Copyright is a dying industry … basically they flat-charge everyone regardless of how much they use and now because their business is going under they want to supplement it,” Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union VP: university affairs Saad Aslam said.

With the deadline looming, Laurier chose to remain with AC, risking having to pay retroactive loyalties to this year later on, depending on the Copyright Board’s decision.

“Some universities have felt that they can go on their own without Access Copyright. You can clear copyright other ways, for us at this point, we felt that continuing with Access made sense, at least over the short term,” said Laurier secretary and general counsel Shereen Rowe.

On Dec. 23, the Copyright Board passed an interim tariff for AC that allows universities to continue paying the same royalties until a decision is reached, potentially limiting how drastic the increase proves to be.

Rowe explained, “I think it would be hard for them to make an argument that they should then ding universities on top of that when they have continued to remit in good faith based on the interim tariff.”

She added a note of uncertainty, however, “All of that remains to be seen.”

Aslam, who also sits on the university’s board of governors, made clear that Laurier needs to examine other options. “We need to revisit why we need to pay into that altogether,” he said.

Opting out means that a university would have to spend time and money securing rights to each article in a coursepack. “It’s really just a cost, you’re paying for it one way or the other,” Rowe said. “You’re either paying to have internal resources that are doing the direct copyright clearance or you’re paying a fee to another organization to essentially do it for you by having agreements with authors to address copyright.”

Laurier uses coursepacks routinely, while some universities rely on other materials and are less dependent on licensing. “Some [universities] don’t use coursepacks or very few,” Rowe said. “So for them the photocopying and the clearance maybe isn’t as much of an issue. If you’re dealing with a lot of texts you don’t need to worry about it because it’s all dealt with.”

What it means for students now — and possibly later

The situation for Laurier students remains unchanged for the moment because of the interim tariff and students will continue to pay the $1.70 charge each semester plus the per-page charge that is applied to coursepack prices.

“From the student’s perspective, there’s no financial change and we’re continuing to monitor where things are at and to make a decision on where we want to go in the future,” Rowe said.

While current students may not see any change during their time at Laurier, future students may face paying the royalties to cover materials of previous years.

“We didn’t want to inadequately charge students for the next year or two or three years until the tariff was finalized and then have new students who weren’t here in 2011 forced to cover costs because there was a huge retroactive cost that wasn’t addressed,” Rowe said.

For now, Laurier and its students are forced to wait for the results of the ruling and cope with its possible repercussions.

“If there is any retroactive payment we’ll have to deal with it at the time,” Rowe concluded.