Access Copyright announced a shift in its licensing approach for universities and colleges yesterday, unveiling what it described as “new market-focused services.” Access Copyright CEO Roanie Levy is quoted as saying “we recognize the advances many institutions have made on content dissemination and the centralized management of copyright. We hear you. We are changing.” Indeed, the copyright collective has changed its tune in some important ways.
Less than three years ago, Access Copyright believed that institutions simply could not opt-out of its licence, claiming that an opt-out would amount to “an absolute ban on all copying” since the only possible way to legally copy materials was to pay the collective. Over the past three years, Access Copyright has been proven wrong. The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed all of its key legal arguments in a massive defeat, the government expanded fair dealing with the inclusion of education, universities opted-out of the Access Copyright licence in droves, and dozens adopted fair dealing policies that called into question whether there was much value in the licence at all.
While Access Copyright is still suing York University (more about that below), the collective appears to recognize that the education sector has alternatives, including the enormous expenditures on site licences, open access publishing, fair dealing, public domain works, and individual licences for works not otherwise available. In other words, Access Copyright is an option, not a requirement, and the collective must prove value that extends beyond extolling the size of its repertoire. Rather, it must demonstrate that it offers value for money in an environment where the Supreme Court has emphasized the importance of users’ rights and adopted a liberal, flexible approach to fair dealing.
Access Copyright’s new approach appears to focus on two things: lower prices to reflect the reduced value of its licence and more options for universities and colleges. While the current model licence costs $26 per full time student at universities, its new “Premium” service drops the fee to $15 per student on a three-year commitment. That licence covers paper and digital copying of up to 20% of a work, which is greater than the 10% standard established in most fair dealing guidelines. Alternatively, Access Copyright is also offering a “Choice” service that costs $5 per student. It only covers handouts and email attachments. Coursepacks and digital uploads are charged at 12 cents per page, which is a 20% increase over the prior per-page fee set some years ago. Access Copyright says the “Choice” package is designed for universities that have centralized their copyright management. In other words, those that have already opted-out of Access Copyright and might want back in.
Why the lower prices? Access Copyright finally admits that fair dealing should be more directly factored into its pricing:
The new rates are intended to reflect market uncertainty around fair dealing in education. As
such, they represent a sincere attempt to continue working with the education sector as we await greater clarity on fair dealing.
So will universities jump at the new offerings or is it too little, too late?
The “Premium” service is clearly targeting universities that currently operate under the Access Copyright licence. That licence will be expiring for many this summer (those who signed three year deals days before the Supreme Court ruling in 2012) and most were expected to stop using the collective. The new $15 price tag, which not-so-coincidentally starts just as the old licences expire, may prove attractive to those institutions. Indeed, fair dealing is not free as it costs real dollars to manage the system. One institution that I spoke with during the period when many were opting out (not my own school), estimated the cost at $12 per student. If that is accurate – and if the institution has not invested heavily in copyright management – the Premium service will likely find a few takers. However, this new offer may come too late as many institutions will have prepared opting out and already budgeted for copyright management services.
The “Choice” service is targeting those that currently operate without an Access Copyright licence, so the question will be whether it provides enough value to justify the $5 annual fee. At the moment, covering handouts and email attachment is unlikely to viewed as providing much value. Those copies typically are shorter in nature and more likely to fall under the fair dealing guidelines. The value might come in providing certainty on transactional licences by effectively creating a per-page cost for work that would presumably only kick-in once fair dealing no longer applies – ie. for copying between 10 – 20% of a work. This isn’t a particularly cheap alternative, but it is convenient. That said, those universities in the Choice category will have already invested in copyright management and may not want to add new costs for relatively limited value.
All of this suggests that Access Copyright is gradually lowering its prices, but it may not succeed in significantly altering the market for its licences since its best case scenario is merely to keep some universities within the fold (admittedly who were likely to leave) rather than bring back those that left several years ago. The Premium service comes closer to a rate that may find a market, but the Choice service may ultimately need to shift to a transaction-only model under which Access Copyright makes it easy to licence works not covered by fair dealing. By effectively charging a $5 administrative fee, it isn’t there yet.
Moreover, there is one further consideration that universities should factor into any decision: the York University litigation. For many years, the universities effectively funded Access Copyright’s litigation and Copyright Board costs, with the collective setting aside millions to pay for legal and lobbying fees. To return to that state of affairs while litigation is ongoing makes little sense. Before universities once again start sending millions to Access Copyright, they might demand that it stop suing them first.