Copyright: A Boring Word has Become a War

June 18, 2013

Years ago, a guide for Canadian writers called copyright “the most boring word in the English language.”

The authors were trying to make the point that writers and other creators must understand copyright because it determines how much value our work has, but that the rules about it were cut and dried. That was when every newspaper and magazine in the world bought lots of freelance work under the terms outlined in the copyright act with no further contracts needed and book contracts could fit onto a single page or two.

Things have changed radically since then.

Now, librarians, bookstores and schools spend more money on garbage pails and snow-clearing then they do on content. The Canadian government has added so many exceptions to the Copyright Act that many can’t find ways to be paid at all. A semi-stable system to ensure that creators benefit from their own work was disrupted without anything structure to replace it.

At the same time, large publishers began selling articles digitally without negotiating with freelance writers to sell their works. That resulted in four different lawsuits in Canada.

So I was shocked to read Cory Doctorow’s argument that a strong public domain and a freely-accessible internet are more important than writer working conditions.

Doctorow made his values perfectly transparent in his March 28 Guardian article entitled “Copyright wars are damaging the health of the internet.” (See http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2013/mar/28/copyright-wars-internet).

In part he wrote:

…virtually everyone with a solution to the copyright wars is worried about the income of artists, while I’m worried about the health of the internet.

Oh, sure, I worry about the income of artists, too, but that’s a secondary concern. After all, practically everyone who ever set out to earn a living from the arts has failed – indeed, a substantial portion of those who try end up losing money in the bargain. That’s nothing to do with the internet: the arts are a terrible business, one where the majority of the income accrues to a statistically insignificant fraction of practitioners – a lopsided long tail with a very fat head. I happen to be one of the extremely lucky lotto winners in this strange and improbable field – I support my family with creative work – but I’m not parochial enough to think that my destiny and the destiny of my fellow 0.0000000000000000001 percenters are the real issue here.”

I think Doctorow’s main premise that the internet is a crucial tool on par with food, water and shelter stretches reality, but I agree that government legislation should avoid giving large corporations more rights than individuals. I also agree that legislation is a weak tool against digital surveillance and that it shouldn’t take away basic human rights, like the right to a fair trial.

His initial premise, however, that 99.9999999999999999999% of those of us trying to earn a living in the arts are destined to fail, seems worse than worrisome. Such an assumption, if it were true, puts the arts squarely behind every other worthwhile human endeavour, something that just isn’t true.

In fact, the arts make a great deal of money for people, businesses and even governments, but too often the original creator of a work isn’t among the beneficiaries. People like me who insist that copyright law needs to emphasize the need for creators to be paid for their own work are simply extending the ideas included in worker-protection legislation such as minimum wage law and workplace security laws to our industry. If legislators take these kinds of laws too far, that’s no reason to wipe out the initial concept.

It also downplays the efforts of many people who have worked hard to even the creative marketplace over the years. In Canada, writers like Michael Faye, June Callwood and Mike O’Reilly were on the ground floor of the creation and initial running of collective societies like Access Copyright (http://www.accesscopyright.ca/), government programs like the Public Lending Right (http://www.publiclendingright.ca/) and worker unions like the Canadian Freelance Union (http://canadianfreelanceunion.ca/). I suspect that similar institutions exist in the U.S. too.

And his criticism that those of us working hard in favour of creator rights view the Internet as a giant distributor of pornography is absurd. Now if you include propaganda too? Maybe. 🙂

Actually, that too is limited. Many of us put the internet on par with communication and utility networks, like those for telephone, electricity and cable.

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Tracey Arial

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Tracey Arial

Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.

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