Access Copyright is much like the Blockbuster Video of Canadian university libraries. At one time, it seemed indispensable. Today, it’s almost obsolete.

Founded as a non-profit “collective” in the late 1980s, it worked as an agent for publishers and authors in administering copyright licences for a collection of copyrighted works. Canadian colleges and universities paid Access Copyright annual fees in exchange for the right to copy material from a collection of journals, textbooks, and other sources, without having to get direct permission from the copyright holder.

Access Copyright, meanwhile, secured copyright permission for those institutions both to  photocopy material and post the material to course web sites. Traditionally, this consisted of print material,  but, as of December 2010, it included some digital material. Access Copyright  also indemnified universities and colleges against litigation, meaning that it insured them against liability in the event that copyright was violated.

Access Copyright paid the copyright holder every time an article from its collection got photocopied for “coursepacks” used by postsecondary students. It also enforced the copyright on sources from its collection so that individual journals didn’t have to. (For sources not part of Access Copyright’s collection, universities had to seek direct permission from copyright holders.)

Put differently, Access Copyright acted as a middleman. On the one hand, it helped commercial publishers turn a profit. It also helped academic publishers, most of whom are non-profit, have very few employees, and struggle to stay afloat. Further, it helped protect colleges and universities from being sued for copyright infractions.

But, as University of Toronto Law Professor Martin Friedland argued in a February 2007 report, the inner-workings of the organization were never clear. Worse, he alleged, its methods of allocating funds were disorganized, outdated, and arbitrary.

And it was  not a neutral go-between. Of the 18 positions on its board, 9 are for publishers and 9 are for authors. None are for universities or colleges.

In spite of the collective’s internal disorder, it managed to bring in a respectable amount of cash. By 2008, Access Copyright was even able put aside three  million dollars to set up its own charitable foundation.

For years, universities and colleges paid Access Copyright an annual, per-student fee of just under four dollars  per full-time university student (in addition to 10 cents per page of coursepack material, a charge that was passed on to students when they purchased coursepacks from the university).

But times have changed, and over the years many authors have challenged the traditional approach to copyright, electing instead to use the Internet and distribute material they produce free of charge (known as the “open access” model). Many organizations funding research are also requiring that published results of research be open access. Along similar lines, a growing number of universities have created their own “institutional repositories” that store—and make available—publications by their faculty members and students.

Further, the Internet has cleared the way for the proliferation of journal databases, and many academic libraries have purchased access to them directly (including the copyright permission for their use). It’s also cleared the way for universities to get more permissions than Access Copyright could provide. For example, universities are now able to purchase entire runs of journals from major academic publishers in digital format; they are also able to store them on their own servers, providing perpetual access to journals to both students and faculty.

Thus, in many cases, universities were paying for copyright twice: once through the publisher directly and then again through Access Copyright. The writing was on the wall.

In effect, Access Copyright no longer had the firm grip on academic copyright that it once had, which raises a fundamental question: how would it make up the revenue shortfall?

In March 2010, Access Copyright, apparently reacting to these trends, made bold proposals to the Copyright Board of Canada. First, it sought to change the rules, proposing among other things to undertake more monitoring of copyright on campuses.

Second, it sought to increase its per-student fee, making it one flat fee of $45 per full-time university student (while proposing to eliminate its “by-the-page” charge). For many universities, this amounted to an increase over more than 1000 percent. Even the original rate was substantially higher than the amount being paid by American universities to the equivalent body south of the border.

This went over like a lead balloon with the universities, and in short order, they fought back.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Canadian Federation of Students filed a joint objection. And by July 2011, 14 of Canada’s 25 largest universities had terminated their contracts with Access Copyright. Instead, they’ve announced, they’ll try to cut out any  go-between like Access Copyright and seek copyright permissions directly from publishers. And with a growing body of open access material, there is also the potential to obtain copyright permission on more sources free of charge.

A year from now, it’s possible that no Canadian university will  have dealings with Access Copyright.

Many universities that parted ways with Access Copyright have hired additional staff to seek copyright permissions directly from publishers. Eventually, universities could join forces, possibly to merge their institutional repositories, possibly to start a brand new collective.

But all of this has created as many problems as it solved. After all, a go-between  can save a lot of people a lot of time. And for all its faults, Access Copyright served a function.

For publishers, the loss of Access Copyright (all other things equal) means one less revenue stream,  though direct licensing of electronic material to universities helps compensate, in some cases.

The situation is particularly worrisome for academic publishers. Though they have regular subscriptions, royalties, and grants from government and private sources, no longer will they get royalties from Access Copyright. If academic publishers see less revenue, they may have to cut corners; some might have to print books with fewer words.

Publishers are also losing their long-time copyright watchdog. Who will undertake the laborious task of giving copyright permissions? This involves looking at the contract, confirming the percentage of royalties to be paid to the author, determining the amount to be charged and—get this—confirming that permission does not conflict with another permission. Who will stop photocopy shops from allowing entire textbooks to be photocopied? Some already-stretched publishers may have to hire new staff to fill these gaps.

A small, independent journal that relied on Access Copyright for revenue might not be able to handle the shortfall. If it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy to begin with, losing the 10 per cent of annual revenue provided by Access Copyright could be the last straw.

Academic libraries are also faced with multiple challenges. Some publishers, reluctant to see Access Copyright circumvented, have brazenly refused to grant universities direct permission for use (i.e., to copy, provide a limited distribution to students, etc.).

And without the go-between protecting universities and colleges from copyright infraction, there is more pressure on course instructors to assess what constitutes “fair dealing” (i.e., an exception to the Copyright Act for educational purposes).

At universities that no longer use Access Copyright, the wheels turn a wee bit slower these days. Course instructors are no longer able to post entire articles on their course web sites without first seeking and receiving permission from the copyright owner (a process that usually takes less than a week). Though they often get help with this from library staff, some instructors won’t bother. Instead, they’ll direct students to access articles directly from the library. This is hardly the end of the world, but extra steps have the undesired effect of placing barriers between students and knowledge.

Universities and colleges believe in copyright, but they felt shortchanged by a go-between who no longer seemed  neutral.

In making their pitch to the Copyright Board, Access Copyright thought it could leverage more funds from academic libraries. The gamble backfired. Both universities and colleges believe they can find a better way.

Nick Falvo is a Ph.D. Candidate at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration. He is also Vice-President Finance of Carleton’s Graduate Students’ Association (Local 78 of the Canadian Federation of Students).