I had the chance to attend the Access Copyright Annual General Meeting earlier this month in Toronto, and I will offer some reflections while they are fresh in my mind.
I found there were an interesting cross-section of viewpoints represented there. It's clear that the organization is entering a crucial period where it must decide if it is going to act like a true creators' collective, or continue along the path of being a collection agency for large corporate publishers.
As the delegate representing the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), I was at one level the odd person out at the meeting. Of all of the creator's groups that are members of Access Copyright, CAUT has been the most outspoken in favor of users rights and a balanced copyright regime. But at the same time I felt there was a strong commonality of interests between academics and other independant writers and artists.
One of the big issues that was on everyone's mind at the meeting was the Friedland Report (A Report to Access Copyright on Distribution of Royalties), which was highly critical of the organization's distribution practices.
For example. . .
The present distribution scheme is extremely complicated and I found it surprisingly difficult to understand how the system worked. I have undertaken a number of other public policy studies over the years, including such reasonably complex topics as pension reform, securities regulation, and national security, and have never encountered anything quite as complex as the Access Copyright distribution system. It is far from transparent. (p.5)
Friedland made 20 specific recommendations for reforming the system, and it was clear that many of the creator delegates wanted to have a deeper discussion of the problems raised by the report than the tightly run meeting format permitted.
While a resolution from the floor mandated some further discussion at a subsequent meeting, it was clear that the Board and Staff were eager to move on to other routine business and not dwell on the report in much detail other than to say it was received and responded to.
One of the highlights of the meeting was the keynote address by Claude Brunet, one of Canada's leading copyright expert After delivering the obligatory invectitude against the usual suspects (certain academics, the Facebook group, the Supreme Court, nothing unexpected) Brunet turned his attention to some unlikely targets, the increased tendency to treat copyright more of a commercial/trade issue and less of a creators' rights issue, and the biggest proponent of this expansive international regime, the United States. Brunet surprised many in the room by saing he was having some second thoughts about supporting a Canadian implementation of the WIPO Copyright Treaty along the lines of the US DMCA. He was also very critical of the litigious nature of the large rightsholders in the United States which he feels has resulted in an erosion of legitimacy of the copyright system in the eyes of many.
Christopher Moore offers some additional reflections on Brunet's talk which are well worth reading. He also goes back to the question of the Friedland Report and AC's distribution policies:
As Professor Friedland’s analysis of its distribution policies recently set out so clearly, Access Copyright itself actually encourages and rewards publishers who attack the copyrights of their creator partners. The more successfully publishers, many of them American-owned and directed and imbued with the American sense of copyright, can destroy creators’ copyrights, the more Access Copyright takes the money it raises in the name of creators and delivers it to publishers instead (as the AGM reports on distribution made dolefully clear once again). Even our copyright collectives sometimes seem to give only lip service to the idea that copyright is worthy of respect, unless it is publishers’ copyrights.
Laura Murray' s recent blog entry also summarizes the situation quite well where she observes: "Now clearly, Access has not behaved like a co-op, but I’m thinking, what if it did?"
I'm glad I had the chance to attend this meeting, certainly the situation is much more complex than I had previously understood. There is much common ground between advocates for a more open and balanced copyright system and the creators, who are all basically users themselves. Fortunately, the old dichotomy between users and creators is weakening and more attention is being paid to the problems facing independent creators in world of corporate concerntration in the media and publishing industries.
In the long run, Access Copyright is going to be facing some difficult challenges, and that they would do very well to adopt Friedland's recommendations and take some of the criticisms they have been receiving from creators a bit more seriously.
Time will tell.