You may or may not be aware that motions have been passed at two recent Annual General Meetings (The Writers Union of Canada and The League of Canadian Poets) questioning the fairness for writers of Access Copyright’s distribution policies and procedures. The original motion passed at TWUC’s AGM calls for “an operational separation of creators’ and publishers’ interests in collective licensing,” and directs TWUC’s National Council to investigate “how a significant reform of collective licensing in Canada can be brought about at the earliest possible moment.”
I agree with Don Meredith of the Outdoor Writers of Canada who has publicly questioned the timing of these motions. Federal copyright reform legislation is pending, and an aggressive ideological attack against the very idea of collective licensing of copyright has been launched by a small yet influential group within Canada’s post-secondary educational community, led by free-culture theorist Michael Geist. Dividing the attention and resources of a collective front in the face of such a belligerent attack on writers’ rights seems at best absurd, at worst self-destructive.
I also question the tactic of introducing motions from the floor at AGMs without fully preparing the membership by way of an honest and relevant presentation of fact. That seems – frankly – sneaky and dishonest. I am also deeply disturbed that Michael Geist seems to have been better prepared for the introduction of these motions than were the very members of the organizations involved. It seems clear Michael Geist was fed information about these motions before they were even introduced. His response has been a flurry of public attacks on collective licensing in general and Access Copyright specifically, all of them short on facts and long on hyperbole.
If we're all to have a good-faith discussion of fact, surreptitious policy hijacking and attempts to publicly embarrass our own collective are a very poor start to the process. I think it’s important for everyone to lay their cards on the table openly and honestly.
I am not onside with the criticism of Access Copyright represented by these motions. In fact, I strongly disagree with many of the “recognized facts” presented, and think the idea of an operational separation from or at Access Copyright is both unnecessary and ultimately destructive to the collective power of the cultural sector in Canada.
Having heard a number of presentations by Chris Moore, DC Reid and Cathy Ford on this subject over a number of years, I find their argument for a distribution remake and an operational separation between creators and publishers entirely unconvincing.
I wish to make two main points:
1. I sympathize with any writer’s frustration at not receiving a very large slice of the cultural revenue pie. I am a magazine writer, a novelist and a poet. I administered PWAC’s 2006 industry survey that showed just how small the average writer’s take home packet is. I get it. We are all very poorly compensated.
2. On the other hand, while I may personally want more money, I only want more of the money I myself have earned through my creative work. That is why for years with PWAC I focused on the ongoing files of "raising the rates" and "protecting rights under contract." The complaints presented by Ford, Moore and Reid seem to me to fly in the face of that latter concern, which is the strangest of ironies.
When I'm wearing my professional writer hat (I have other hats), I think of publishers as my partners in both business and culture. I have deep respect for the written contract, and feel that as writers we need to take greater responsibility for those contracts, and make them the proving ground for our incomes. We have only the value we sign our names to, whether we like that fact or not. If we want more, we must insist on more before we sign.
A very wise citizen of the cultural sector, D.B. Scott, was recently presented with the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement at the National Magazine Awards. In his acceptance speech, he included a call for all in the magazine sector to take another look at how we treat each other:
“In their own, long-term best interests, publishers and editors need to re-examine the way in which they treat and compensate the creators of the content upon which their magazines depend. And freelancers need to remember that everything is negotiable, but they have to speak up forcefully on their own behalf. I realize there is no line item in magazine budgets that is labeled “respect,” but respect costs nothing and lubricates magazine relationships.”
I suggest D.B. Scott’s words apply outside magazines, in fact to all the creators and publishers who make up Canada’s copyright collective. Respect is the key word as we go forward; yet the tenor of the recent attacks against Access Copyright has been disrespectful in the extreme.
Access Copyright’s distribution splits were worked out in good faith by writers and publishers many years ago in the true spirit of collective interest. To me, they seem infinitely fair. In many instances, writers get the lion’s share of the royalty split. In fact, because publisher royalties flow to writers as well, through contractual agreements, there is a compelling argument to be made that writers benefit from both sides of the so-called writer/publisher divide at AC.
All of that is not to say occasional re-examination of agreements is not called for. I welcome honest investigation and discussion; but I also think Canada’s writers (and publishers) would do better for themselves right now by directing their attention to rates and contracts, and by speaking out loudly in support of their rights under copyright.
By no means are raising rates or improving contracts easy projects. We certainly don’t make the projects any easier by distracting ourselves from their central importance, by alienating our partners, by attacking those who toil on our behalf through our collectives and associations, or by encouraging disrespect for our rights among those with an interest in removing them.
Thank you for your attention to my opinions on this issue.
I am a creator affiliate of Access Copyright, receiving royalties from work I have published. I am also the former Executive Director of the Professional Writers Association of Canada, former Chair of the Book and Periodical Council, former Communications Manager at Magazines Canada, and former member of both The Writers Union of Canada and The League of Canadian Poets. Currently, I am the Literature Officer at the Ontario Arts Council. To avoid conflict of interest in that role, I do not publish my creative work with any publisher funded by my office and have resigned all my professional memberships. I have written this letter from my position as an independent Canadian writer, and not as a representative of the OAC. The opinions expressed in this letter are my own.