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Canadian Universities Switch to Tech Savvy Alternatives

Appeared in the Toronto Star on July 24, 2011 as Canadian universities switch to tech savvy course alternatives

Canadian university and college campuses are quiet at this time of year, but in recent weeks many have been making noise by transforming the way professors and students access and license course materials. For years, schools paid an annual per student fee to Access Copyright, a copyright collective that licenses photocopying and the creation of print coursepacks. Starting in September, many of Canada’s top universities will no longer use the Access Copyright licence, opting instead for a more flexible, tech savvy alternative.

The shift away from Access Copyright marks the culmination of years of technological change within Canadian education that has resulted in new ways for professors to disseminate research and educational materials as well as greater reliance by students on the Internet, electronic materials, and portable computers.

Ten years ago, photocopy licences made sense since physical copies were the primary mechanism to distribute materials. The availability of a wide array of materials from alternative sources and mushrooming demands from Access Copyright have combined to force education to consider new approaches.

The Internet and new technologies are responsible for much of the change, fueling the emergence of alternative sources for millions of articles and other course materials. For example, more than 70 universities participate in the Canadian Research Knowledge Network, which provides access to thousands of journals for over 900,000 researchers and students. The network spends tens of millions of dollars annually on site licences, which in turn enables universities to provide full access to the database content without the need for further compensation.

A growing body of research is also now freely available under open access licensing, as researchers make their work openly available on the Internet. More than 20 percent of all medical research is available under open access licences, while the Directory of Open Access Journals lists over 6,500 open access journals worldwide. When combined with the emergence of open educational resources – course materials also made freely available – educators have much to choose from (the U.S. government alone is investing $2 billion over the next four years in open educational resources for colleges).

Students still spend hundreds of millions of dollars on academic books each year, but for shorter excerpts, fair dealing, the copyright law provision that permits copying a portion of a work for research or private study purposes, may apply.

Should professors want to include additional materials not otherwise covered by these sources, the universities can seek pay-per-use licences directly from the copyright owner or from a copyright collective. Ironically, Access Copyright is resisting pay-per-use licences for education, leaving some schools to license the same materials from the U.S. Copyright Clearance Center.

The shift away from Access Copyright is not solely about alternative forms of access, however. Just as technology was facilitating alternative ways to access course materials, Access Copyright upped its licensing demands. In 2010, it filed a proposal for a new $45 fee per full-time university student. For universities accustomed to far lower costs, the demands threatened to add millions to already tight budgets.

In response, earlier this year a handful of universities, including Acadia, New Brunswick, Windsor, Mount Saint Vincent, and the University of PEI, announced they would no longer operate under the Access Copyright licence. Most have found the transition relatively painless, as they have established new campus copying guidelines and worked with faculty to obtain individual licences where needed.

In recent weeks, many other universities have announced plans to follow the same path with Waterloo, Queen’s, Calgary, Saskatchewan, and Athabasca University all notifying professors and students that are opting-out of the Access Copyright licence.

Starting in September, thousands of Canadian students and faculty members will shift from Access Copyright to open and alternative access, relying on more flexible arrangements that will increase reliance on electronic course content and freely available materials that can be used without restriction. The change will suffer from some growing pains, but represents a major step toward better leveraging technology within the education system.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at


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