Copyright: What’s the Big Deal?— By Julie Barlow

The Federal government is in the process of revising the Copyright Act. If you don’t think that matters to writers, think again.

I’m always surprised to see blank stares on writers’ faces when I launch into a speech about copyright. Some of them aren’t clear why copyright really matters. Others aren’t sure what copyright even is. Fair enough—it’s not the sexiest topic in the writing world. But even if you don’t notice it, it’s fundamental to our business.

Here’s why. I am a non-fiction author of six books and a magazine writer. To earn my living I sell the right to use my work, either to publishers who pay me advances and royalties or to magazines who pay me fees to publish my articles. For most of my twenty-five-year career, this revenue has constituted most of my income.

Simply put, copyright law is what makes it possible for me to get paid for my work. The Oxford dictionary defines copyright as: “The exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.” That’s me—the originator. The Copyright Act is what legally makes my work mine as soon as I create it, and mine to sell.

It sounds solid in principle, and I wish it was. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to enforce my copyright and get paid for it. So I jumped at the opportunity to attend a hearing hosted by the federal government’s Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, held May 8 in downtown Montreal.

First, let me explain why it’s getting harder to make money from copyright. The reason, in a nutshell, is the Internet and digitization. By making it easier to “publish” and “distribute” creative work, the Internet has made many, many consumers of culture think they should get what’s online for free. The ripple effect in the publishing industry has led to dramatically less revenue for publishers, magazines, and of course writers.

“By making it easier to “publish” and “distribute” creative work, the Internet has made many, many consumers of culture think they should get what’s online for free.”

Magazine revenues fell when advertisers turned to online outlets. So magazines are trying to increase their profits by demanding (and the word is not too strong) more copyright from writers, but for the same fee. Whereas the standard when I started publishing in 1995 was to sell first publication rights (giving the magazine the right to publish it once), I now have to sign contracts in which I hand over the right to resell my articles in any form, in any language, anywhere on the planet, sometimes for periods longer than the rest of my life. I used to resell my pieces, sometimes up to five times. Now that’s impossible. Some magazines have even demanded I give them “moral rights” to my work, which means they can alter my work any way they want without my permission – or even take my name off it (I don’t work for those ones).

The case in book publishing is a little harder to explain. The industry as a whole is suffering from the forces of technology and book advances to authors are falling. When I Google my own work, I discover so many sites offering free (i.e., illegal) PDFs of my books that I can’t keep track of them anymore. And neither can my publisher.

In 2012, the Conservative government recognized that the Internet and digital economy were changing the dynamics of publishing, so it set out to revise the Copyright Act, originally passed in 1921, to take digital realities into account. But the resulting revisions made it harder for both writers and publishers to earn money. The Act already stipulated situations when consumers don’t have to pay creators. For example, “fair dealing” allows you to share one of my articles with a friend for personal consumption without infringing my copyright. The 2012 revisions broadened fair dealing to include situations like “education.” The problem was, the revised Copyright Act didn’t stipulate how much of the work could be used without infringement. The result? Universities and schools across Canada have been refusing to pay fees for copies of my articles or excerpts from my books. Since 2013, the revenue that Access Copyright collects from universities, schools, and other institutions to distribute to writers has declined by 80 percent.

As a writer, what do I want the government do to about this? I’m not expecting them to turn back the clock—the Copyright Act has to be adapted to work in the digital world. But most writers would agree that in this already difficult context, we deserve at least as much protection as we had before, not less.

“As a writer, what do I want the government do to about this?”

Today, the government appears to recognize the 2012 revision was a misstep. One committee member told me in private that the previous committee let copyright users like universities pretty much dominate the agenda during the last reform, while we creators had little say. So this year the government decided to go back to the drawing board and start by asking for our input.

At the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology meeting on May 8, about thirty-five creators spoke during the “open mic session.” We each got two minutes to make our case. The vast majority told their own variation on a common tale: over the last 20 years it’s become dramatically more difficult to earn money from our work because it’s harder to get anyone that should pay for the privilege of reading (writers’) or listening to (musicians’) or looking at (photographers’) work to actually pay for it.

Creators are looking to the government to strengthen the copyright law so it protects our interests. For example, this means minimizing exceptions to fair dealing. I told the committee: “Some people own real estate and make money by selling it. I own copyright and make money by charging magazines and publishers for the right to publish my writing. Why would I be expected to donate my work for free to people who are making money using my work?” (Last time I checked, universities weren’t charities and professors didn’t work for free.)

“Why would I be expected to donate my work for free to people who are making money using my work?”

I actually feel a strange kinship with the taxi drivers and hotel owners out there whose livelihood is threatened by digital technology in the form of Uber and Airbnb. The difference, of course, is that the general public seems to get why taxi drivers and hotel owners ask for protection, whereas few understand how infringing on copyright takes money directly out of creators’ pockets.

This time, I hope the government listens to creators. If they don’t, I’m not sure how we can be expected to make all the stuff people want to copy in the first place.

I encourage other QWF members and all creators to draw on their own experience and submit a brief to the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, explaining why copyright is important to creators. Here’s the link.


JulieBarlow_headshot

Julie Barlow is a Montreal-based magazine writer and author of books on language and France, including her latest, The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed (St. Martin’s Press) and The Story of French, winner of the 2007 Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction. She teaches the Quebec Writers’ Federation workshop, Narrative Non-Fiction: Finding the Story Among the Facts. Visit her at nadeaubarlow.com.

Photo credits: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images (header banner); Julia Marois (headshot)

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15 thoughts on “Copyright: What’s the Big Deal?— By Julie Barlow

    1. Nigel G. Spencer
      The article is about English Canada ONLY, and ignores the progress made many years ago in Québec (and Scandinavia), where limits on the size of excerpts for multiple student copies is clearly established–and compensated via an agency called Copibec. Prosecutions have even taken place over violations here.

      Unfortunately, English Canada is still woefully out of touch, and I’m amazed Ms. Barlow didn’t do her homework; it’s odd she was able to make these claims without being corrected by her audience. Very naïve and uniformed indeed.

      Hi Nigel,
      Thanks for your thoughts. The piece was written specifically for the Quebec Writers’ Federation audience, who are almost all English-speaking members, so that’s why it principally addresses the situation of English Canada. However, copyright law is federal, so what happens with the revisions will affect Quebec writers as well.
      On that point, I am a francophone journalist (contributor to L’actualité for over 20 years) and well aware of the situation here. Let me assure you that the situation for freelance journalists (re. writes grab) is no better in Quebec than elsewhere, and in some respects worse. The situation in the book industry is about the same, as any of the many francophone editors and authors at the Copyright revision in Montreal hearing in May attested.

      The big difference is, of course, that, on the whole, Quebec universities have been more respectful of copyright limitations than outside. But then, of course, then there is the Laval University. (I would have liked to mention the case of York University, as well.)
      Unfortunately, with a roughly 1000-word limit on the blog posting, I did not have the space to go beyond the explaining the basics to my audience of English-speaking writers and tried to concentrate on what would be most pertinent to their careers

      Bonjour:

      Comme enseignant de CEGEP, j’ai rempli des formulaires Copibec très très fréquemment et avec plaisir, surtout dans un contexte de retranchement de l’édition, surtout en anglais au Canada.

      Ce que je ne comprends pas c’est que, si les anglophones ont à peu près trente ans de retard dans leur connaissances, ce n’était pas justement une priorité de corriger cette erreure.
      Cordialement,
      NGS

      Hi Nigel,
      Anglo writers here have the choice between registering with Copibec or Access Copyright. Most I know are registered with Access Copyright.
      And of course I’m always glad to hear from an educator interested and engaged in the issue of copyright.
      Access Copyright (founded 1988) does the same thing as Copibec (founded about 5 years later if I remember correctly) for English Canada. So in that respect Anglophones aren’t at all behind.
      Unfortunately I think Quebec is actually trailing English Canada in this trend toward depriving creators of copyright. Things are getting tougher for creators here and will continue to do so unless the laws are tightened.
      Your institution has a licence with Copibec and that’s why you are required to fill out the forms.The problem is that more and more institutions have chosen in the last years to not renew licences with Access Copyright/Copibec, citing as a reason, the fair dealing exceptions that were opened up in the last revision under the Harper government in 2012. (This is happening in Quebec as well, as we saw with Laval University). Institutions without licences with a copyright collection agency simply copy and distribute material as they please, depriving creators of the rewards of their copyright.

      Unless the present government sets stronger limits on these exceptions to the Copyright Act, my feeling, and that of most creators, is that the “trend” of not renewing licences with Copibec/Access Copyright, will continue, in Quebec like in English Canada.

      Quebec does have a tendency to be slightly more proactive when it comes to protecting copyright, at least in theory. But unfortunately, on the whole, I think Quebec is behind on this trend that will increasingly deprive creators of hard-earned income.

      Hope that’s clear. All the best.

      Like

      1. Obviously, I meant that anglos in Québec are notoriously out of touch and uninformed.

        As an educator, I am aware that photocopying rights are protected when multiple copies are made for students, and francophone writers are informed and up to date on this, particularly through UNEQ. (This is where the bulk of copyright violations were happening 25-30 years ago.)

        A lot of anglo writers still are not registered with Copibec, I suspect, or don’t know that they are.

        Like

  1. Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    Thanks for this. Though it’s about Canada, Barlow touches on an issue that affects us all. She writes, “When I Google my own work, I discover so many sites offering free (i.e., illegal) PDFs of my books that I can’t keep track of them anymore. And neither can my publisher.” I basically gave up trying to address this problem. Maybe it’s up to readers not to buy from these sites? As Barlow writes, we all fall prey to the idea that if it’s available online, it ought to be free.

    Like

    1. The article is about English Canada ONLY, and ignores the progress made many years ago in Québec (and Scandinavia), where limits on the size of excerpts for multiple student copies is clearly established–and compensated via an agency called Copibec. Prosecutions have even taken place over violations here
      Unfortunately, English Canada is still woefully out of touch, and I’m amazed Ms. Barlow didn’t do her homework; it’s odd she was able to make these claims without being corrected by her audience. Very naïve and uniformed indeed.

      Like

      1. Hi Nigel,

        Thanks for your thoughts. The piece was written specifically for the Quebec Writers’ Federation audience, who are almost all English-speaking members, so that’s why it principally addresses the situation of English Canada. However, copyright law is federal, so what happens with the revisions will affect Quebec writers as well.

        On that point, I am a francophone journalist (contributor to L’actualité for over 20 years) and well aware of the situation here. Let me assure you that the situation for freelance journalists (re. writes grab) is no better in Quebec than elsewhere, and in some respects worse. The situation in the book industry is about the same, as any of the many francophone editors and authors at the Copyright revision in Montreal hearing in May attested.

        The big difference is, of course, that, on the whole, Quebec universities have been more respectful of copyright limitations than outside. But then, of course, then there is the Laval University. (I would have liked to mention the case of York University, as well.)

        Unfortunately, with a roughly 1000-word limit on the blog posting, I did not have the space to go beyond the explaining the basics to my audience of English-speaking writers and tried to concentrate on what would be most pertinent to their careers.

        Like

    1. I’m truly amazed that a so-called “Montréal” writer has been so out of touch for so long.

      The article is about English Canada ONLY, and ignores the progress made many years ago in Québec (and Scandinavia), where limits on the size of excerpts for multiple student copies is clearly established–and compensated via an agency called Copibec.
      Prosecutions have even taken place over violations here
      Unfortunately, English Canada is still woefully out of touch, and I’m amazed Ms. Barlow didn’t do her homework; it’s odd she was able to make these claims without being corrected by her audience.
      Very naïve and uniformed indeed.Prosecutions have even taken place over violations here
      Unfortunately, English Canada is still woefully out of touch, and I’m amazed Ms. Barlow didn’t do her homework; it’s odd she was able to make these claims without being corrected by her audience. Very naïve and uniformed indeed.

      Like

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