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What the Ministers of Education Want from Copyright

By Christopher Moore | October 18, 2005

That sleepy group, the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada (CMEC), is about to take that perennial snoozer, copyright law, and try to drive it into the headlines. Parliament is about to take up Bill C-60′s amendments to the Copyright Act. Watch out for scary headlines like: “Schoolkids banned from the internet by Canadian law, educators say.”

The educational bureaucracy wants an exemption from copyright and it wants it now. It wants a law that says anything that can exist in digital form should be available for educational purposes without permission or payment. If it cannot have this, it screams “Banned from the Internet.” CMEC has organized a whole network of teachers and PTAs to trumpet this claim as part of its attack on Bill C-60.

The educators are talking scary nonsense.

Schools do need clear legal access to digital materials, and they need it now. Can it be provided? Yes. In principle, it is simple. Even in practice, it is not very complicated. Educators are right: Canada should act. Let’s license schools and universities to copy and distribute anything they need in digital form, and let’s make sure their licences protect them against claims of copyright violation. That’s where copyright reform is heading.

How do we know licensing is simple? Because it has already been done. Today, schools and colleges photocopy when they feel they need to. For years, teachers have made photocopied materials part of their teaching programs. Because schools are licensed by collective licensing agencies, they don’t have to seek out rightsholders for permission, and they are covered against claims for copyright infringement.

Now that the networked computer is replacing the photocopier, Canada is ready for a licensing regime for digital copying that should broadly resemble the photocopy situation. Instead, the educational establishment is spreading digital panic.

For all their urgings of prompt action, the education bureaucrats don’t want a licensing regime for the digital world. The schools are not on board with licensing because when they acquire licences, they pay for the right to use the fraction of the material that is copyrighted.

The education bureaucrats have a different idea for the internet. They want access, but they don’t want to pay for using copyright material. They want a special privilege in the Copyright Act for the education system. They want schools to be able to take and redistribute anything they need — and they want creators and publishers who create learning materials to get nothing for online uses of the material they provide to schools.

Educators are lobbying hard for a free ride on the backs of those who create and make learning materials available. But Canadians pay a lot to support our education system, and it is worth paying for. Part of what is worth paying for is the work of those who contribute value to it. Teachers and educational bureaucrats don’t work for nothing. Why should creators of learning materials be denied the value of their contribution?

Educators oppose copyright reforms that will make licensed access to digital copying as readily available as it is in photocopying. They don’t want licensing. They want something for nothing.

The educators say they recognize the rights of copyright holders. But CMEC proposes the onus should be on creators and publishers to make material unavailable — to padlock and block access in order to prevent educators from getting access to copyright material, if the owners want to get payment for their work.

Why are educators trying to force anyone to prevent access? With licensing, access is guaranteed and payment is negotiated. For anyone who believes in a wired world where students can access what they need and rightsholders are fairly compensated for copyright material, digital licensing makes sense. The educational bureaucrats’ desperate campaign for a free ride has become the greatest obstacle to a digital future that works for everyone.

Special exemptions for one privileged lobby group are no way to build a Copyright Act that works. Licensed access is the solution for both schoolkids and creators.

[This piece was published on October 3, 2005 in Hill Times, the newspaper of Parliament Hill. ]

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