When Christopher Schneider, an assistant professor of sociology at UBCO, takes the microphone this weekend at the school’s Community Day, his lecture on the Vancouver Riots will likely run without reference to the main instigator—Internet chatter.
Like every other professor on the campus—not to mention thousands more across the country—Schneider doesn’t know whether the specific reference points he wants to show have copyright protection anymore now that the university’s relationship with Access Copyright is broken.
Last month, the copyright collective and nearly three dozen post-secondary institutions failed to come to an agreement as the collective tightened the reins on Internet copyright, according to national news reports.
“What it’s doing is turning us all into our own copyright lawyers, which is problematic because most all of us aren’t lawyers,” said Schneider.
The problem surfaced this spring when Access Copyright, which acted as a middleman between educational institutions and the publishing industry for nearly two decades, announced it would extend its reach to cover Internet links, and upped the fee for service from $3.38 per student to $45, to cover the costs of maintaining copyright in an online era.
Up to that time, universities across the country had always paid the nominal fee, plus a 10-cent surcharge on photocopies.
Access Copyright handled any and all interactions with the copyright holders, leaving professors free to show diagrams, provide reference material in course packages and generally send their students back to the books and Internet sites needed to understand class material.
But late this summer, many universities, including UBC, decided the Access Copyright services no longer fit their means and pulled out, leaving individual professors almost no time to learn the new ropes and adjust their teaching material.
“Now, unless you have written permission from the person who owns the copyright, you can’t use it,” said Schneider.
For him, this means the paper he just wrote on Napster, is out—the copyright is no longer his.
It also likely means many of the Facebook references and posted videos he might have shown to explain how the Vancouver riots got started are likely off limits—although he admits he’s really not sure. “That’s the problem. Nobody really knows,” he said, adding the students are the real losers as professors are simply pulling their material.
UBC’s legal department in Vancouver, the body tasked with handling inquiries on the issue, could not be reached for comment Monday.
The professors, meanwhile, have been provided with a seminar on the issue and one point-person in the UBCO library to deal with questions. The course packets, in-class presentations and articles that might have been put on hold in the library—even Internet IP addresses—must now come under scrutiny as each individual prof negotiates the rule changes.
“We’re being told Access Copyright will hire students, and possibly even faculty members, to report anyone who is thought to be breaking the Copyright Act,” said Schneider, noting it feels like a return to the McCarthy era in the U.S. when the intellectual community was persecuted under the auspice of being Communist sympathizers.
The penalty for breaking copyright can be a personal lawsuit for a professor.
While it may not be jail, as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Blacklist threatened in the 1950s, it’s still a pretty steep price for simply doing one’s job, he said.
He knows of one history professor who has had to redraw maps and diagrams by hand because they cannot find the person responsible for copyright on the material, and says he would be really worried if he was an art history prof trying to sort through a lifetime’s worth of slide images.
A spokesperson for Access Copyright could not be reached on deadline, but the company’s legal council has told other news agencies it believes an agreement could have been reached with the schools.
Locally, Okanagan College remains in the agreement, meaning instructors are free to hand out reference material as they have always done.