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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2004

Federal Heritage Committee Proposes 'Tax' on Educational Use of Internet

Canada's education community, including teachers unions, school boards and provincial ministries of education, has united to oppose a recommendation from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage that would force schools, colleges and universities to pay a license fee to use material on the Internet.

The committee's recommendation, and the angry response it has prompted, has arisen because Canadian copyright law currently makes many educational uses of the Internet technically illegal.

"What we are concerned about is the material on the Internet that is currently freely available to the public - which represents the vast majority of Internet content," said Ken Field, who chairs CAUT's copyright working group.

"The problem is that the downloading and sharing of this material between and among students, teachers and librarians can be a violation of the Copyright Act. It doesn't matter if the material was posted on the Internet with no expectation of payment, and no one is out of pocket, it can still be an infringing activity."

To address this problem, the education community is calling for an amendment to the Copyright Act to allow users engaged in learning activities at public education institutions to freely access public information on the Internet. The amendment would not apply to commercial material protected by passwords, encryption or other means.

"The education community pays millions of dollars a year to use copyrighted works for educational purposes," Field said. "What we don't want is to also have to pay for material that is free, and this is exactly what the Canadian Heritage Committee is suggesting."

The committee, chaired by MP Sarmite Bulte, recommended in its interim report on copyright reform that Ottawa create a regime of extended licensing, which would require educational institutions to pay a fee to the representatives of businesses selling material on the Internet. In exchange, institutions would be entitled to some form of exemption from legal liability for using the Internet. The report also said a licensing regime should not apply to public information.

Field said that assurance does not inspire confidence. "First, the committee's understanding of publically available material is so narrow that it only covers a small percentage of material on the Internet. Second, the way the proposal is framed, we still have to pay the license fee for commercial products that we don't want in order to gain permission to access the free material that is of actual interest to us. In essence the committee is saying, yes there is a free public buffet of food, but you have to buy a $100 bottle of champagne if you want to eat it. What we're saying is, we'll take the free material and you can keep your champagne."

Stakeholders in the copyright reform process have been watching the debates over tighter regulation with interest.

Sue Lott of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, while strongly opposed to the committee's licensing scheme, worries the bigger issues associated with copyright reform will be lost in the uproar over education.

"The committee's report also deals with the ratification of international copyright treaties, photographic works, Internet service provider liability and interlibrary loans," she argues. "On each of these issues the committee sided firmly with the owners of copyright material at the expense of public access. At the end of the day, Canada needs a law that fairly deals with the interests of both owners and users of copyright works. It would not be in the public interest to see an important but narrow victory on the education amendment while the rest of the Act slides further into disrepute as a tool of the recording and publishing industries."

Field agrees, but says the education amendment is only one part of CAUT's concern to establish some balance in the copyright legislation. "The interests of actual creators of material, as opposed to the corporate recording and publishing industry, must be taken very seriously. We would not be pursuing this if we believed it was to the detriment of individual artists, painters and writers, including our own members," he said.

"Industry Canada has specifically examined the economic impact of the education amendment on creators and concluded it would be minimal to nonexistent. We are, after all, talking only about material that has been posted on the Internet by its owner for the specific purpose of public sharing."

As to where this process will lead, Field is optimistic. "If enough pressure is applied, we can turn the government, if not the committee, around on the education amendment and their whole approach to copyright," he said. "The committee's recommendation is problematic on its face, but as you dig deeper it becomes even more suspect. Canadian content is estimated at about 3 per cent of the material on the Internet. Who in Disneyland and Hollywood is the committee going to be sending the bulk of the license money to?"

He also said the current minority government situation provides a unique opportunity. "When parliament resumes sitting, the MPs will be particularly sensitive to public concerns. More doors and ears will be open as a result."