Independent Report Blasts Access Copyright Over Lack of Transparency

One year after it was completed by University of Toronto law professor Martin L. Friedland, the results on an independent study on Access Copyright and royalty distribution system has been released [the report was emailed to me; I have not seen an online version].  The report is a stunning indictment of the copyright collective, calling for dramatic change in governance, transparency, and royalty distribution practices.  Friedland begins by noting:

I have undertaken a number of other public policy studies over the years, including such reasonably complex topics as pension reform, securities regulation, and national security, and have never encountered anything quite as complex as the Access Copyright distribution system. It is far from transparent. Very little is written down in a consolidated, cohesive, comprehensive, or comprehensible manner. There is no manual describing in detail how the distribution system operates.

The report continues by examining the history of Access Copyright, comparing it to other collectives, and identifying inequities in the distribution structure.  For example, it reveals that "in the distribution for 2005 under the federal government licence, the publishers received $188,256 for scholarly journals and the creators received nothing." 

The report includes 20 recommendations for change, which include:

Make the System More Transparent – The distribution system has to be more transparent. As I stated earlier in this report, very little is written down. There is no manual for the staff describing in detail how the distribution system operates. The information given to affiliates is even sparser. There is a one-page description on the web site, but it contains very little information. In contrast, SOCAN makes available to its members on its web site an up-to-date 32-page document on distribution rules.

Simplify the System – The present distribution system should be simplified. Even if it were more transparent, it would still be difficult for affiliates to grasp the details. It is far too complex. As stated earlier, part of the reason for this complexity is because the details for distribution have been worked out over the past 20 years as a series of compromises, accommodations and adjustments. It is not just publishers against creators, but also compromises, accommodations and adjustments within the creator community and amongst the different types of publishers.

Eliminate Most Contract Overrides – One way to simplify the system is to eliminate the present ability to override by contract the splits determined by Access Copyright. In the early days of the collective, individual contracts could not be used to override the splits determined by the collective. Contracts cannot override the agreed splits in the UK and Quebec and in many other jurisdictions.

Periodicals – Revenue from periodicals should also be shared 50/50 between publishers and creators, whether the periodicals are magazines or academic journals. There is no reason why copying of academic journals should automatically result in 100% to the publisher given that copyright ownership should not necessarily govern reprography royalty shares.

The final recommendation focuses on the Access Copyright board itself.  Friedland calls for the elimination of the 9 creator, 9 publisher board to be replaced by a board composed of 4 persons representing the publishers, 4 representing the creators, and 4 independent directors, making a board of 12 persons, plus the executive director, making a total of 13 members.

The Writers' Union has welcomed the report.  It remains to be seen how Access Copyright will respond.

The Access Copyright response is posted in this version of the report – some recommendations were accepted, while others, including the major recommendation on governance, was rejected. 


  1. A Publishing Runaway Train
    Not that anyone should be surprised by this? What’s amazing is just how long it Canadians put up with a broken railroad before anyone stops to take a second look at a regime such as AC.

    These findings are are more evidence that the multinationals-driven content world we all live in, increasingly got corrupted by publishers who scream “YOU OWE ME” copyright cash at every turn! Books, periodicals, videos, and oh yes MUSIC (which has many collectives in Canada – isn’t it more than a dozen?). Combined it has become royalties heaped on top of royalties, heaped on…

    It’s the publishing lawyers on these publishing-rights-driven collective boards operating largely ‘in secret’ that have successfully eeked out more and more novel ways to garner themselves hefty sums, all-the-while the source creators of the content receive less and less, or as this report suggests, in many instances zip-zero-zilch!

  2. I had a look at the Access Copyright distribution manual. Maybe it’s just that I’m not a professor, but I found it very simple and straightforward. The sharing of money by AC has always been contentious. Most publishers take the view that money from copying scientific journals really shouldn’t end up going to poets and illustrators of children’s books. As for the secrecy nonsense, every distribution rule was OKd by the creators on the Board. And from what I’m reading here, Friedland seriously got it wrong on a few points. Why – not that’s it’s his business anyway – can’t contracts override AC rules? This hasn’t been plain sailing in in the UK, it led many publishers and the entire newspaper industry to opt out of the collective there, and as in the US 100% of money goes to publishers, Canada isn’t out of line. Finally, the publishers who get money from AC do share it with their authors. Sorry, I know that bashing publishers and colletcives is what this blog is all about, but not all authors think it’s doing a bad job.

  3. rational author says:

    The Writers Union blocked an attempt to change the size of the Access Copyright Board two years ago, so it’s a bit rich to hear they welcome the report. Anyway, why is a review of distribution making a “major recommendation” on governance?

  4. Pay the mailman too?
    Those are interesting comments and I’d be interested in seeing more of what people think.
    Personally, I’ve always had a problem with publishers getting royalties in the first place. Does the printer get royalties? How about other facilitators and distributors of printed material, such as maybe the mailman. Everybody deserves to get paid for their work, but just because you print a book or flyer and send it out doesn’t seem to be a good reason to demand royalties. One could perhaps argue that a nicely made letter press edition is a work of art, but in a digital environment, claiming “publishing” royalties on a file starts to sound downright ridiculous.

  5. The reason publishers (and authors) get royalties is that these are one of the forms of payment for being a publisher or author. The printer gets paid (by the publisher), and the other “facilitators and distributors” most definitely get paid too.

  6. Janet McNaughton says:

    I’ve refused to affiliate with Access Copyright for years and was finally adopted by Copybec, the Quebec organization which is a much fairer to creators. Access Copyright has always been a publishers’ organization, capable of calculating the money owed to publishers to the penny, while distributing token lump sums to creators.
    We are owed this money because photocopying reduces sales. Printers do not lose money when materials are copied, they’ve been paid. Mailmen do not lose money when materials are photocopied. Publishers and creators do.
    Access Copyright should be able to do better for creators. Other copyright collectives do.