Canadian Author John Degen: MTP's Chris Castle Interviews Canadian writer John Degen on craft and copyright
John's perspective is particularly relevant as the Canadian Parliament is currently debating a major overhaul to Canada's copyright laws which could have a profound effect on both non-Canadians and Canadians online.
Chris Castle: You're a novelist, poet and what I would call an activist for author's rights. Let's talk about the writing first. One writer once said that the way he got ideas for novels was by keeping a meticulous journal - then one day he started lying in his journal and before long he was writing his next novel. What's your approach?
John Degen: You left out a couple of jobs there. I also work full time for the Ontario Arts Council, administering grants to writers and publishers; and I'm the father of twin boys. My approach to writing these days is mostly to observe other people doing it and feel very jealous that I can't. That said, I have a new novel on the go and a collection of poems nearing completion. The work for these is done in time stolen from my family, so it's slow going.
The novel is the result of one moment in time. In the summer of 1994, I was walking on a leafy residential street in the embassy district of Bucharest, Romania. This was just 4 and half years out of the revolution of Christmas 1989, when Ceausescu and his wife were both executed. There were still battle scars all over the city, and as I walked I counted the unrepaired bullet holes in the stone walls and stucco houses.
I turned a corner still daydreaming, and almost banged right into two young soldiers guarding an embassy gate. I swear, they looked like they were no older than seventeen -- kids, playing soldier in oversized uniforms and hats. Except the machine guns they had strapped over their shoulders were unmistakably real, and I think I startled them. I remember staring at their fingers, which tapped nervously at the trigger guards. When I looked in their eyes, I saw they were staring at my hands as well. I was returning from the market, and I had a litre bottle of beer in each fist. All at once, the three of us were laughing.
I've been noodling that moment for 16 years. Stay tuned.
Castle: Are there particular writers who influenced you starting out and do they still resonate with you?
Degen: How does one answer that question without sounding pretentious? The truth is I'm not a very critical reader. I read for enjoyment; and if I learn craft from what I read it's accidental. If I could write a few sentences like Graham Greene, or one plot like Raymond Chandler, I'd be very happy indeed.
Castle: The "hero archetype" and "hero's journey" are common themes we hear about in screenwriting, and sometimes I think they are inextricably connected to Red Sonya, Hobbits and Harry Potter. Are these models inescapable?
Degen: You know how you can tell they're inescapable? Even those attempting to subvert them wind up simply interpreting them from their own perspective. The hero's journey, I think, is just another way of saying "life," and there's really no escaping that archetype. The trick to using that archetype to make fine art is to be so subtle and nuanced about the journey it almost never starts. The trick to making a lot of money from the archetype is to write about hobbits and wizards. Combine those two tricks, and people's heads explode.
Castle: Recording artists are often told that they don't need record companies any more in the digital era. Are authors being told that they don't need book publishers and what's your view?
Degen: Well, there's no shortage of free advice for how creative professionals should be running their businesses and lives these days; but in my experience little of it takes into account the realities of professional creation. There are the rare instances of self-published work reaching a large readership and even winning prizes, but going it completely alone as an author remains the exception to the rule.
Publishers are certainly under pressure to adapt to a changing marketplace - the e-book market being the most volatile determinant right now - but the necessary work publishers do in developing authors and their texts must not be undervalued.
Because of my work, I know thousands of authors at all levels of craft and career development, and I don't know if I've ever heard one say he or she would prefer to not have a publisher. Even Cory Doctorow and Michael Geist - two fellows who generate a lot of discussion about the great democratizing effects of digital technology and the fall of the traditional middlemen - even they have very traditional publishers for their books.
Castle: You are Canadian, and I noticed that Canadian authors have filed statements with the court opposing the proposed Google Books settlement. Do you have a point of view about the settlement?
Degen: I celebrated the fact of the Google settlement because I'm a sucker for a David and Goliath type victory. Here we had one of the world's most powerful corporations making private deals with some of the worlds most prestigious and influential libraries in a massive digitization effort that was celebrated by many as an unquestionable boon to humankind. It seemed unstoppable, despite the fact that no-one had asked the rightsholders for permission.
And yet a bunch of tiny authors and publishers managed to make the giant step back. They forced an implicit admission that something about the project did not, in fact, smell like roses. That aspect of the Google Books story was good news.
The legal mess that followed, I leave to the lawyers and judges to figure out. Canadians understandably have a thing about dictating our own terms, so I think it's perfectly reasonable that an American settlement's universality would be questioned here.
Castle: Canada has a very sensible orphan works law, which applies only to music. It seems that Google has a greater interest in what they call "orphan works" than authors do. Is the orphan works issue one of concern to you?
Degen: Of concern to me personally as an author? Not in the least. I write original works, and I'm confident in my application of fair dealing (Canada's version of fair use). I am not one who looks at the public domain and sees vast tracts of legally untouchable material because it might qualify as orphaned work.
I understand the concern about orphan work theoretically, but to me that is the problem with a great deal of the worry and panic around copyright - it's based in theory and not practice. Has there ever been a comprehensive survey of working professional creators to determine just how perilous is the problem of orphan works?
What's more, I have a hard time believing current technology can be used to track and store the purchasing preferences of every human on the planet, but that same technology can't figure out how to track down copyright holders.
Castle: Canada seems to have many more organizations devoted to protecting, encouraging and funding Canadian culture than we are used to in the US, starting with the Heritage Ministry. Is that just the perception?
Degen: This is the old elephant and mouse problem. Tiny little Canadian culture beds down happily each night beside the largest, heaviest and loudest culture in the world (I say that with love - who doesn't love an elephant?).
Our bookstores are full of your books, our movie houses are full of your films, even many of our most popular homemade televisions shows are just Canadian versions of your most popular shows. The cultural product we create that is truly "Canadian" can be pretty hard to spot beside the elephant, and an elephant can do an awful lot of damage to a mouse without even trying. Think of the protection, encouragement and funding of culture in Canada as an invisible elephant-proof forcefield.
Castle: Canada is considering a new Canadian copyright law (Bill C-32) including new rules for works on the Internet regardless of national origin. These new rules affect artists both inside and outside Canada. What's your view of the new law and do author groups have any particular recommendations for amendments?
Degen: Bill C-32 looks to be going to Parliamentary committee in November, at which time our law-makers will likely call witnesses to discuss the proposed changes to copyright law. I expect creator groups will appeal to the committee to introduce a number of amendments aimed at pulling back what looks to be a pretty dramatic pendulum swing in the direction of consumer permissions.
A bunch of new exceptions are included in the bill, including a vaguely written exception for educational use (currently educational institutions in Canada license use with copyright collectives). In my opinion, the general vagueness of the new exceptions is a real problem for creators and copyright holders, endangering established rights and business models. In the current climate of widespread disrespect for and misunderstanding of copyright, I don't know if large-scale users need more encouragement to disregard the ownership of original works.
Castle: There are a number of organizations in Canada that have formed around opposition or support for a new Canadian copyright law. I noticed recently that you have resigned your membership in "Fair Copyright for Canada" which is associated with Michael Geist, a leading voice for consumers on the international stage and one of the vocal opponents of the Anticounterfeiting Trade Agreement. What prompted you to join the "Fair Copyright for Canada" group and what prompted you to resign?
Degen: The copyright debate in Canada is plagued by imprecision and vagueness, much of it designed to create confusion around the real issues. Michael Geist created the Fair Copyright for Canada group on Facebook, spread panic about digital locks and an invasion of American corporate lobbyists, and then benefited from the one-click slacktivism that Malcolm Gladwell recently criticized in The New Yorker (Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted).
Tens of thousands of Canadian Facebookers joined the FCFC group, and I'm convinced they did so out of an undefined notion that fairness is a good thing and if the Americans are attacking us again (remember 1812!) we must resist.
What that group never actually became was a respected forum for unbiased, non-partisan discussion of just what "fair" might mean in copyright. Instead, it remains just one more web-based platform for Michael Geist to cross-post his blogsinuations.
I was one of the very first members of FCFC, and I stuck it out as long as no alternative existed. I posted and commented frequently, giving the professional creator perspective and questioning some of the received wisdom of the copyleft; and for my troubles I was abused, threatened, maligned, insulted and called every name in the book including, shudder, a lawyer. Once, I was even intentionally censored - posts and comments of mine were removed from the site and my membership in one of the FCFC chapters was revoked. The official explanation was that I was making statements "inconsistent with the principles of Fair Copyright." How fair is that?
Anyway, a new group has recently formed, Balanced Copyright for Canada, which is a collection of creative industry professionals intent on actually discussing the issues. They don't censor or abuse dissenting voices. They engage with them, because it's actually in their interest if people understand the complexities of copyright. And they don't pad their membership through panic. So, I moved my discussion time over there.
By the way, almost on the very day Balanced Copyright launched, Michael Geist wrote a blog post calling it "The Copyright Lobby's Astroturf Campaign in Support of C-32." Never mind that the group is composed of real people with real concerns; never mind that the discussion is decidedly not in support of the bill as written; and never mind that Geist himself has since expressed strong support for the bill. All's "fair" in the copyfight, apparently.
John's most recent book is The Uninvited Guest, available through Book People and through Nightwood Editions. Visit John's blog at JohnDegen.com.
Chris Castle is Managing Partner of Christian L. Castle, Attorneys with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco.