Tuesday, November 27, 2007
copyright = oxygen
A friend of mine, copyfighter Russell McOrmond, is fond of the analogy that copyright law is like water -- too little of it and we die of thirst; too much of it and we drown. As analogies go, this one is very tidy, but I prefer to think of my copyright as oxygen. For the professional practice of a working writer, copyright is not a too much/too little proposition. It's an either/or. Provided with my oxygen, I get to keep breathing and keep writing. Deprived of it, well...
Russell's commitment to what he sees as fair copyright is profound, and I respect him even as I often disagree with the particulars of his position. I think our disagreements stem mostly from the fact that we work in very different areas and very different ways. Russell is a software developer and consultant deeply integrated into the open source ethos of that particular field. I write very traditional texts -- poems, novels, essays and articles. It is possible that we need very different things from a copyright law, and I would hope that Canada's legislators are subtle and smart enough to provide for both of us. You heard me.
Anyway, it looks like the feds are getting ready to make long-awaited and crucial changes to the Canadian Copyright Act. While the online Copyright Act says it is current to this very month, the bulk of it addresses a pre-digital reality, and for professional writers the pre- and post-digital worlds are drastically different in terms of respect and payment for work. An example:
In my day-job as Executive Director of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), I deal with a lot of professional writers who have found their work reproduced on commercial websites or in commercial databases, without either permission from or payment to the writer. In many cases, not even the original publisher of the work is aware that the work has been appropriated for use elsewhere. Ignorant or unscrupulous re-publishers simply copy and paste entire texts from one site to another and then offer up the work as their own content. This is not quoting, or linking or referencing – all of which I support as necessary freedoms – but wholesale copying of complete texts. I am frequently astounded by the response of these absconders to any complaint or query about their business practices.
“But the article was freely available on the Internet.” Yes, for reading, not re-using.
“But the information in the article is crucial to the public interest – how dare you try to lock up this information!” No-one is trying to lock up information; we are instead asking you to respect the copyright of a text. There’s a real difference. A text is created through the work of a writer. It is original and of both commercial and moral value to the writer.
And my personal favorite… “We were providing that article for educational purposes only, and we gave the writer full credit.”
This one needs a bit of unfolding. First of all, full credit without permission or any suggestion of payment is cold comfort. For an idea of how writers see such deals, watch this YouTube video (warning: profanity):
(American writer, Harlan Ellison explains the joys of working for "credit.")
Secondly, no website with any commercial intent (one that sells advertising space, for instance, or attempts to present itself as the authority on a specific topic while aligned to a related commercial interest) provides anything for educational purposes only. This is a gigantic cop out, and one with terrifying implications for any potential new legislation. The idea that educational use of texts should be given an exception under the law is a disastrous loophole in the making.
Any exception to copyright weakens the entire concept and makes the prospect of professional creative practice very tricky indeed. Copyright ownership and control do not necessarily mean lack of access, but exceptions to ownership and control might very well mean the end of “professional” writing. Besides, exceptions are completely unnecessary. Any number of perfectly reasonable mechanisms can be used to make sure genuine educational uses of copyright protect material can be both easily and inexpensively accessed by both students and teachers, AND see to it that the copyright holders are fairly compensated for that use. As a society, we’re smart that way.
All sorts of new business models are being tested in the new digital reality, including models that provide digital access to original copyright protected material free of charge with the aim of battling obscurity (the writer’s greatest foe). You can see Canada’s own Sheila Heti doing just that over at her site, where visitors can read the entire text of her beautiful The Middle Stories. Please note, though, that it is Sheila Heti, the owner of the copyright on The Middle Stories, and not someone else who has decided to test this business model for her, for educational purposes only and with full credit, blah, blah, blah.. That’s how copyright needs to work – the owner makes the decisions and, hopefully, everyone benefits.
The prospect of new law has brought out all the usual suspects to advocate for their own positions as a bill approaches. I am one of the usual suspects. PWAC and The Writers’ Union combined on this recent letter in the Hill Times:
Letter to the Hill Times
Meanwhile, over at PWAC, we are trying to bring a little humour and consumerism to the effort by selling pro-writer, strong copyright gear, such as the bumper sticker shown above. We also offer Pay the Writer and Strong Copyright coffee mugs and t-shirts.
I wrote all the taglines for the PWAC gear, and provided it (free of charge) to PWAC. In my new business model for writing, PWAC will now continue to pay my salary. You know, hopefully.
Thanks to the excellent blog bookninja.com for tipping me off to what Sheila Heti is up to these days. And now, no doubt, Russell McOrmond will write a long comment. En garde!