The Rights and Wrongs of Copyright — Sunday column, November 21, 2010
“Did you always intend to be a writer?” asked the student.
“No,” I said. “ The idea never crossed my mind. One of the things I learned in school was that to be a writer, you had to be British and dead.” The phrase “Canadian writer” was an oxymoron, as silly as “jumbo shrimp.”
I vividly remember when the idea did occur to me. I felt as if I had been scaling one side of a razorback ridge, climbing hard and seeing only the slope in front of me. As I reached the crest I suddenly saw that it was possible to be not just a reader but a writer – and the whole landscape opened up in front of me, a broad fertile valley that represented the rest of my life.
Almost every Canadian writer of my generation had a similar revelation. And within the new organizations we were forming – the League of Canadian Poets, the Playwrights Union, the Writers Union – we encouraged one another to believe that we could truly set the world on fire.
We did, too. Our “tribe,” as Margaret Laurence called it, included such towering figures as Margaret Atwood, Roch Carrier, Timothy Findley, Marie-Clair Blais, Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler and Alastair MacLeod. Our tribe built its own infrastructure – publishing houses, magazines, academic programs, film and theatre . By the end of the 20thcentury, Canada’s leading writers were winning prestigious international prizes, and their works were being bought, produced, celebrated and studied around the world.
We didn’t do it alone. Writers, publishers, film producers and theatre companies have all benefitted from the strong support of federal and provincial governments – and from legal structures that allow creators in all genres to benefit from the success of their work. Chief among these structures is copyright.
Copyright simply means that when you create a work, you own it – and others who want to profit from it must compensate you for using it. A publisher buys a license to publish your novel. A film producer buys the right to adapt it for the screen. A gaming company buys the right to produce a videogame based on the story.
Direct purchasing doesn’t work with photocopying and digital sharing, but Canada has devised a very satisfactory solution to that, too. Institutions – provincial governments, school boards, corporations and libraries – buy licenses to copy from collective societies like Access Copyright, which distribute the income to the creators whose work has been copied.
Copyright is inherently an exercise in balance, acknowledging society’s interest in the free transmission of knowledge, but also recognizing the need to support those who create it. Copyright has various exemptions, notably “fair dealing,” which allows the limited quotation of copyright works for purposes of research, private study, criticism, review, or news reporting. But as technology evolves, so must the law – including copyright, the subject of Bill C32, which is before Parliament now.
In recent years Canadian writers have done well artistically and intellectually – but not financially. In 1985, the average Canadian writer earned $26,000 annually. To match inflation, that figure should have risen to $65,000 by 2005 – but in fact it had dropped to $24,000. A few writers earned much more, but most earned much less.
Bill C32 would seriously erode the poverty-level incomes of writers by greatly extending the concept of fair dealing, particularly with respect to ill-defined “educational” uses of copyright material. Unscrupulous copy shops have been known to make inexpensive photocopies of entire textbooks – which today is illegal, as it should be, and for which the pirate shops have been charged and convicted. Will it still be illegal under the new Act?
More important, why are “educational” uses specially privileged? Nobody seriously questions the value of education, and that’s why we all pay for it through our taxes. The education budget goes to support the people and products that make education possible – teachers, janitors, computers, buildings, basketballs, bunsen burners.
Nobody suggests that there’s anything wrong with paying the full cost of such goods and services.
So how is it fair that writers and publishers should be required to subsdize the educational system – but not plumbers and phone companies?
This is not fundamentally an issue of financing, but of justice. People are entitled to be compensated fairly for their work, and for the use of their property. In the end, copyright is as simple as that.
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