My Thoughts

The Rest of the Story

Writers in Canada are getting screwed. Colleges and universities are bypassing royalties paid to writers, either by refusing to use copyrighted works, or by attempts to stretch the legal definition of “fair dealing” and continuing to use copyrighted works without recompense to the authors.

Writers are quick to blame the schools. But what most writers do not understand is how recent changes impact schools. I am in the unique position of being both a writer, and the administrator of a distance education program for a private post-secondary institution.

Let me be clear that I am not excusing the practice of some, mostly larger, government-funded institutions, that insist on having access to copyrighted works without paying. Intellectual property theft is both ethically and legally wrong. There is no excuse for it.

However, there is a subset of schools, mostly private institutions with no income other than tuition paid by students, that have chosen to stop using copyrighted works. I can’t speak for other schools, but I can share the reasons why the directors of my school came to this decision. There were three: 1) the costs of using copyrighted materials jumped by 650% per student from one year to the next; 2) No assurances were given that a similar increase wouldn’t happen again in a couple of years; and 3) The contracts schools were required to sign allowed for retroactive invoicing, at the higher price, for past years.

650% Price Increase

So, what’s the big deal? The per student cost rose from $4 to $26. That’s only a $22 difference per student – you just collect it along with their tuition. Doesn’t make any difference to you. Costs go up all the time, it’s part of doing business. Schools are just being stingy.

It’s not as simple as that. Eventually, schools can add the increased cost to tuition fees, but not to existing students. At my school, we don’t charge tuition per year, we charge per program. Our most popular program lasts two years.

Currently, we have over 2,000 students who have already paid for their programs. At an increase of $22 per student, that is $44,000 we would have to absorb this year. At a rough estimate, half of those are in their second year, so allowing for attrition and for the fact that some students will have completed their studies early, we can expect that 30% of those, or 600, are still studying the next year. At an extra $22 for each one, that is another $13,200  we have to suck up. That’s more than $57,000 we can’t recover from tuitions. Yes, costs go up every year, but that’s a heck of a chunk to swallow. And that’s just for the Distance Education division – the school also has 13 classroom locations, so overall costs to the school would be far higher than that.

No Assurances

Writers deserve to be paid well for what they do. They have mortgages, families, and bills just like everyone else. They shouldn’t have to accept work that doesn’t pay a living wage.

You’re preaching to the converted here. I get it. I do. So do the directors of my school. $4 per student was an insult to the writers who produced such quality work. An adjustment was necessary. Fine. It would hurt, but we could deal with it. However, given the numbers above, you can understand why we needed to be assured that we weren’t going to be hit again in the same way. We were told there were no guarantees whatsoever – the price could increase again at any time, by any amount.

Let’s envision a smaller increase  - say, 200% – a further increase of $26 per student. Assuming our enrollment stays steady, that means we lose over $67,000 ($52,000 the first year, $15,600 the next) before we can begin to recover costs. Again, these numbers represent Distance Education only, not any of our 13 in-class locations. Well, we can still go ahead and sign the contract, and if such an increase happens again, we’ll re-evaluate at the time, right? Wrong.

Retroactive Pricing

The contract sent to our school gave the organization in charge of copyrights the power to charge retroactively, at the higher price, for contracts that had already expired. The contract didn’t say we would be charged, but it left open the possibility that we could be. That is not my own interpretation, that is the professional opinion of a contract lawyer. We have been operating for 15 years. Without going back and looking up enrollments for each year, I can’t give an accurate number, but it’s a safe bet that we’d be gambling to the tune of at least $100,000.

Let’s suppose you called a plumber to fix a problem in your house. You’ve used this plumber many times in the past, you know he does good work. But when he arrives, he tells you that his rates have gone up, and before he can do this job for you, you must sign a contract giving him the ability to charge you retroactively for any and all jobs he’s done in the past, should he deem it necessary. Would you think he was ethical? Would you hire him anyway, trusting that he wouldn’t really do what you’ve just given him the legal power to do? No? Neither did we. Buh-bye.

Conclusion

While I feel for my colleagues who have lost a source of income, reality is I also have a mortgage, a family, and bills. The school is my main source of income, and I cannot afford to compromise my ability to earn a living in order to support theirs.

Writers are being screwed, no doubt about it. But placing all the blame on educational institutions isn’t accurate. Schools are responding to a situation created by writers’ own representatives who, it seems, could use a lesson in “fair dealing” themselves.