How to use Access Copyright’s look-up tool: DON’T.

As copyright lawyer Howard Knopf blogged earlier this week, the collecting agency Access Copyright has released a “repertoire look-up tool” that, according to the Access Copyright website, is designed to “help” Canadian educators “determine whether you can make a copy from a book, journal, magazine, newspaper or similar publication.”

The AC website specifies that that the tool is for educators at institutions subject to AC licenses (like the “bone-stupid” deals U of T and Western signed) or tariffs (two of which, as Knopf points out, don’t exist). However, the tool is presented in a way that makes it seem like an educator’s first, natural stop for checking whether a given publication can be copied.

It isn’t, of course. As Knopf also points out, your first stop is not Access Copyright but Canadian law, specifically the fair dealing provisions of the copyright act.

What AC is not telling you is that anyone can copy anything protected by copyright as long as the copying does not constitute a “substantial part” of the work, or if it does, the copying falls within the users’ rights of “fair dealing” or, if necessary, the other exceptions found in ss. 29.3 ff. of the Copyright Act.

So the Access Copyright “look-up tool” is, partly, an exercise in perception management, making the agency seem more valuable than it is to educators. (I wonder how much the tool cost them to develop?)

There is also the distinct possibility the tool is of use mainly to Access Copyright itself, despite purporting to be a service for AC’s clients. This is pure speculation, but it is entirely possible that AC has launched this tool as an instrument for mining user data. The tool asks for minimal data to search, but the tool could be recording and interpreting the user-generated inputs for ISBNs, and for digital or print preferences, as a means to gauge user copying practices. The user-provided data could then be interpreted towards justifying Access Copyright’s consistently ludicrous tariff proposals.

In short, this might be yet another way for AC to try to get its clients to do free work for it. In the words of what’s now an Internet mantra, “if you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

I’m not saying AC is doing this; I’m just saying it’s technically possible. However, if Access Copyright were mining data provided by users of the look-up tool, then – as was suggested on the listserv where I suggested this possibility – they might be in violation of PIPEDA (Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act).

In any case, I think the potential for data mining here is a plausible enough reason to simply ignore the look-up tool entirely. In case Canada’s robust fair dealing protection wasn’t enough reason already to ignore Access Copyright entirely.

Works Cited

“Access Copyright Repertoire Look Up Tool.” Access Copyright, n.d.

Doctorow, Cory. “Canadian universities sign bone-stupid copyright deal with collecting society: emailing a link is the same as making a photocopy, faculty email to be surveilled.” BoingBoing 20 Feb. 2012.

Fitzpatrick, Jason. “If you’re not paying for it; you’re the product” [sic]. Lifehacker 23 Nov. 2010.

Government of Canada. Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, 2000.

Knopf, Howard. “Access Copyright Repertoire Look Up Tool – Beta Version – Not Yet Ready for Prime Time.” Excess Copyright 5 Mar. 2012.

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