Since 2012, the last time the Copyright Act was reviewed and amended, the limited use of copyrighted materials without payment or permission has been allowed for educational purposes. As the review of the Act approaches, the government should ensure the fair-dealing exception for education is preserved, as it is a crucial mechanism for reducing financial barriers, improving access to information and enhancing overall quality in Canadian post-secondary education (PSE). The fair-dealing exception also gives students and educators increased ability to access and share information, which in turn fosters a higher quality education system.

That being said, fair dealing should not be confused with permission to steal the work of others  — it is not “free” dealing. On the contrary, it permits the use of materials in a specific context and in accordance with the Copyright Act and Supreme Court of Canada rulings on what “fairness” means. Instances where someone reproduces the entirety of an author’s work are, and will continue to be, violations of the Copyright Act.

Access to content

Across PSE disciplines and programs, education depends on access to quality content and information. The more access students have, to the widest breadth of ideas and information possible, the better equipped they are to cultivate subject matter expertise, develop and improve analytical skills, communicate complex thoughts, and engage with fundamental debates. As the recently completed fundamental science review, Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research, puts it, “Analyzing and synthesizing information, testing hypotheses, challenging assumptions, weighing arguments from different viewpoints, communicating effectively, solving problems, thinking critically—these products of a research-intensive education are invaluable competencies that will serve students over the course of their entire lives.” Indeed, learning the ideas of others and developing the skills necessary to asses, build on, or challenge those ideas is a core component of any education.

To state the obvious, students had access to information and knowledge prior to the Copyright Act changes in 2012. But with fair dealing in education, they now have access to many more sources of information and ideas than was previously possible, and their access to this information is better facilitated through digital platforms.

While students continue to pay (a lot) for course materials (including textbooks), fair dealing means they can simultaneously utilize a wider array of educational materials in their courses. Content that would have been previously omitted in favour of previously licensed work can now be introduced to students, offering them a greater breadth of knowledge and perspective. When considered across diverse courses and multiple years of study, these additional materials substantially improve the overall quality of students’ education.

Perhaps most importantly, students and instructors can share small amounts of copyrighted materials through fair dealing on online learning platforms. It would be a significant loss in the quality of Canadian PSE for students to not fully benefit from the ease with which such digital learning platforms facilitate the exchange of ideas.


The issue of accessing content is directly connected to affordability for students, and we know that the high costs of required course materials can be a major barrier to academic success. The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada recommends that undergraduate students budget between $800 and $1,000 annually for books and course materials, and institutions across the country advise students to be prepared to spend similar, or even higher, amounts. This is a significant cost burden, particularly when we recall that about half of all students go into debt to pay for their education, and that the average debt level amongst graduating students holding debt was over $26,800 in 2015. Research in British Columbia and Florida tells us that upwards of 60 percent of students have made the decision to not purchase a textbook for a course because of cost, which undoubtedly has detrimental effects on their educational outcomes.

Along with exciting new innovations in learning materials like the growing popularity and adoption of Open Educational Resources (learning tools like textbooks that are freely accessible in the public domain), fair dealing in education makes course material (and therefore PSE) more affordable for students. The University of British Columbia announced that the average price of course reading packages sold at their bookstore in 2013 had been reduced by 33 percent, in part because of the ability of instructors to share educational materials through fair dealing. Similarly, a 2014-15 pilot project at the University of Toronto involving 12 courses and 877 students focused on incorporating fair dealing and already-purchased library materials into course-reading packages, resulted in average per student savings of over $122. These examples show how fair dealing can facilitate wider access to learning materials, while also directly improving affordability.

Given the clear evidence of the value of post-secondary education to graduates across credential types, it is incumbent on policy-makers to consider how any changes to the Copyright Act might create financial barriers.

It is important to emphasize that while fair dealing promotes affordability, students continue to support the work of copyright holders by spending substantial amounts on books and other course materials. Statistics Canada reports that in 2014 “educational titles” were one of the top two contributing commercial categories in domestic book sales, worth $366.1 million. Broader technological shifts including the increasing digitization of information, and shifts in consumer habits, have brought new challenges to the publishing industry. Fair dealing has improved accessibility, affordability and quality in PSE, but it is not to blame for these broader shifts in the economy. Students understand that creators deserved to be compensated for their work, not least of all because many students are content creators themselves.

As the review of the Copyright Act gets underway later this year, students will be at the forefront of the conversation, advocating for fair dealing as a balanced and essential means of enhancing the accessibility, affordability, and overall quality of their education. There should be a balanced understanding of copyright that recognizes the rights of both creators and users.

This article is part of the Reviewing Canadian Copyright Policy special feature.

Photo: : Shutterstock/Wavebreakmedia

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous rĂ©agir Ă  cet article ? Joignez-vous aux dĂ©bats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Rosanne Waters
Rosanne Waters is the policy and research analyst at the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations. She holds a PhD in Canadian history from McMaster University, an MA in history from the University of Toronto and a BA in history from Brock University.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License