A recent editorial in The Varsity argued there are “significant ramifications for student life and for academia” from York University’s embarrassing and entirely predictable Federal Court loss in its copyright licensing case. I’m disappointed to see a student paper — my student paper — lending such uncritical support to a blatant cost-cutting gambit by school administrations. Neither student life nor academia are ever harmed by the delivery of justice. York’s loss is actually an opportunity for schools like U of T to stop wasting time and money on doomed legal intransigence, and accept their larger role within a functioning economy.
I hold two degrees from the University of Toronto, and I’m a former Varsity writer (1992–93) with now a long career in the precarious Canadian writing and publishing sector. The first few years of that career were dedicated to paying off my student loan, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I weren’t being paid for my work. I encourage today’s students to take a longer view on this issue. Look into your own futures as full-time workers. Will you expect fair compensation for your labour? Because whether or not your school pays writers and publishers when our work is copied on campus is a question of fair compensation. And let’s be clear, that’s who should be paying — not you; your school.
The suggestion that an institutional copyright licence is an unreasonable cost for students is a nasty bit of rhetorical sleight of hand by cost-cutting administrators. Your school will tell you they don’t want to pay their bill in order to save you money. Don’t buy it. Has the cost of a U of T education gone down in the 3 years this school has not paid a copyright licence? They will trot out a few of their tenured (and very well-paid) legal scholars to feed you a line about freeing our common culture from the bonds of filthy capitalism. And then they’ll send you your increased tuition bill.
Collective copyright licensing is part of the suite of expenses schools should pay as a cost of doing business. The fee you already pay for library access can and should cover everything you need, reading-wise, for the year. The copyright bill may be calculated on a per-student basis, but it is delivered to the school, not to students. If extra fees are then downloaded to you, that is the school’s own budget decision. And it’s a pretty cynical decision.
Go and take a look at U of T’s most recent financial statement. 1.4 billion dollars in student fees are reflected in the revenue section. 1.4 billion dollars! This school could cover a robust copyright licence for every single one of its students using a fraction of its Other expense line, and never even notice. There is zero reason for students to pay extra for the school’s copying bill. You have paid a substantial tuition for your education. If the school makes you read copied work, shouldn’t they provide it?
The Federal Court decision against York University was fair and just. If York does appeal, they will lose again. The university tried to take for free something that costs money, and the law said ‘not so fast.’ Because the law takes the long view. You should too.
When your school refuses to pay for a licence and then tells you to copy anyway, they are putting both you and your professors on the wrong side of the law. York University is not the only school in Canada facing court action over this kind of thing. A class action suit has recently been approved against Université Laval. There will be others; and who do you think will end up paying the legal bills when those schools lose?
Copyright licences are payment for work. In large part, that work is done by recent university graduates trying to pay off student debt and by older graduates trying to put their own kids through school. Tell your school to stop stiffing graduates, and just pay for a licence. And don’t let them download that cost to you.
John Degen is the Executive Director for the Writer’s Union of Canada.