You Get What You Pay For

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Schoolchildren in Canada are missing out on new, up-to-date textbooks because of changes in its copyright laws. These changes, designed to help school budgets in the short-term, are driving some venerable textbook publishers out of the business. In one case, Oxford University Press — which has had a Canadian office and produced core textbooks for the Canadian market since 1904 — has decided it no longer makes financial sense for it to continue.

The changes in copyright law created a loophole that has allowed organizations in Canada to stop paying into Access Copyright, the clearinghouse for copying fees. In one province, the court required the payments to continue, but at a fraction of their previous amounts. As covered in the Globe & Mail:

OUP Canada general manager Geoff Forguson says that, as a non-profit, the press is not permitted to take losses on the books it publishes and that Canadian school publishing has simply become too risky. Emond Publishing, an independent Canadian academic publisher that specializes in law texts for students and professionals, has also abandoned the secondary-school market. Paul Emond says that, as a businessman, he sees much better opportunities publishing material for lawyers than for high-school students.

It’s rare to have examples of what is not produced when commercial incentives and copyright protections change, but the topic is of critical importance, especially as Sci-Hub is now not only stealing journal article PDFs but scholarly books and entire online sites, which they are mirroring. These actions could drive entire products from the market, or publishers from particular markets.

It’s always been confusing to think that access barriers are portrayed as absolute when the request is merely for payment. As these examples show — and others not seen are also out there — when there is no financial incentive to support the publication of books, journals, and other materials, that publication will likely stop.

In a slightly related matter, the story of the Guardian’s financial woes and the departure of their transformative but debt-inducing editorial and business leader is worth a mention. Here you have a similar ideology — that readers need not pay for access to content — leading to the newspaper losing US$65 million last year, continuing a string of annual revenue losses. As the New York Times wrote:

A central point of disagreement within The Guardian has been its refusal — for Mr. Rusbridger, virtually an ideology — to charge online subscribers, as news organizations like The Financial Times, The Times of London, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have come around to doing.

The common thread here is “ideology” — the ideology creating loopholes in Canada’s copyright laws, the ideology leading to the Sci-Hub thefts, and the ideology that will force the Guardian to lay off hundreds of employees. 

In Canada, teachers are turning to free resources to teach their students. These are often non-Canadian resources, and there are concerns about quality controls and accuracy of the information. Academic publishers are making moves to shift away from their content businesses and into measurements, data, and metrics. Newspapers have already suffered incredible losses, leading to poor local and national coverage of vital issues and events.

In the commercial world, free is a price with consequences. Some of those consequences are clearly coming home to roost. You get what you pay for. You don’t get what you don’t pay for — including updated textbooks, flourishing scientific and scholarly journals, and well-paid journalists investigating societal problems and events. 

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