Wednesday, July 27, 2011

of libraries and writers (and rights)

(image courtesy

We Love Our Libraries

Margaret Atwood's Twitter influence is legendary. The super-popular Canadian author wields immense power in her tweeting thumbs, and can draw the eyes of close to 230,000 direct followers and an untold number of others depending on the retweets she inspires. I've seen the greatness that is Tweetwood up close, when a generous retweet by her about one of my copyright postings brought ridiculous traffic to this blog, blowing the analytics charts all out of proportion for a couple of days. I can look back on my traffic timeline now and say "oh yeah, that's when Ms. Atwood came for a visit."

This week, Toronto's mayoral family is learning a thing or two about both Twitter and Margaret Atwood. The story of the Ford brothers and the potential closing of Toronto Public Library branches has been widely reported and doesn't need repeating here.

What I want to stress about this story is that when a Canadian library system finds itself in the cross hairs, endangered by the populist mania for showy cost-cutting no matter the cultural damage, it is a Canadian author who raises her voice in protest and brings the issue some much-needed perspective and attention. To see the discussion inspired by Ms. Atwood's advocacy on behalf of libraries, see her Twitter feed @MargaretAtwood, or the comment sections below the media reports (the Toronto Star story has close to 400 comments already -- for a story about libraries!).

They're Just Not That Into Us

Canadian writers and cultural workers are tireless supporters of the public library system, and of the fabulous work of public, school and university librarians. We consider library workers to be our partners in culture. I can say without exaggeration that I likely would not have become a writer if there had not been a marvelous public library in Aurora, Ontario when I was growing up, and fabulous school libraries in my elementary and secondary schools.

And that's why it continues to be depressing to me and to many other Canadian writers - Ms. Atwood included (I imagine) - that the Canadian Library Association, an essential organization that has done so much good for Canadian culture, has allowed itself to be aligned with a free-culture movement intent on harming Canadian writers by weakening and even removing our rights of ownership over our own intellectual property. The CLA's recent Call to Action on Copyright contains so much Geistian free-culture rhetoric and user-right focus (including sections on ISP liability and "digital locks") it may as well have been written by the relentless free-culture campaigner himself (and maybe it was).

Quoting the controversial CCH Canadian Ltd. v. Law Society of Upper Canada Supreme Court decision, the CLA clearly places the desires of users above the existing rights of creators. They also support the massive expansion of educational fair dealing that, despite not yet being in force, has inspired many universities to test the waters in avoiding payment to creators for use of their work in the classroom.

Considering how strongly and passionately Canadian writers stand behind our public library systems, it's painful to see our partners in culture flap in the populist free-culture winds and advocate against our rights. Are front line library workers aware of just how far their association has gone to alienate Canadian writers from the library system, despite our continued and unwavering support of libraries?

Where's Your Free Culture Now?

I just quickly checked Michael Geist's blog. As I suspected... not one word about the proposed cuts to Canadian libraries. He's too busy preparing a FAQ for Canadian universities on how to stop paying Canadian writers through our national copyright tariff. Fascinating stuff -- it includes directions on how to end-run around Canadian copyright by getting materials from the States, and how to find "suitable replacements" for Canadian works.

WWMAD? (What Would Margaret Atwood Do?)

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Sandy Crawley said...

Brilliant as usual John. welcome back!

Eo Nomine said...

"Fascinating stuff -- it includes directions on how to end-run around Canadian copyright by getting materials from the States, and how to find "suitable replacements" for Canadian works."

No to mention sweeping generalizations and some fairly questionable legal advise. I'm sorry, but any legal professional who blithely asserts that "all materials available through [pre-licenced] sources do not require a further licence" without even suggesting that the user CONFIRM THE TERMS OF THE LICENCE TO SEE IF THIS IS ACTUALLY TRUE, or suggests that teachers do their own analysis of whether their usage constitutes fair dealing based on a handful of bullet-points is not doing his or her readers any favours.

Joe Clark said...

There is no clash between “the desires of users above the existing rights of creators” because what users have, the Supreme Court declared, are rights, not desires. Copyright law provides a balance between creator and user interests, among other pairings.

If you were honest, you would accurately represent current law instead of claiming anyone who isn’t in the tank for copyright collectives, as you clearly are, is some kind of freetard or simply the enemy.

Canadian book authors couldn’t write dust-jacket copy, let alone entire books, without fair-dealing rights.

Darryl said...

Indeed it is nice to see Atwood standing up for our libraries. So there is one issue that she and I agree on. Yeah!

I do wonder though if she would be such a supporter of our libraries if we did not also have the exceedingly generous $10M PLR welfare program in place.

RobfromCalgary said...

Margaret Atwood before Parliament:

"I would like to address particularly the exception that extends the concept of fair dealing to the copying of entire articles in libraries. Even if narrowly interpreted to allow only one article to be copied by or for one person at a time, cumulatively this provision will allow the making of many copies of a single article with no payment to the author.

We do not regard this as fair or reasonable, whether the material copied is an article that was published in the past 12 months or in 1986; whether it is poetry, drama, fiction or non-fiction; and whether the copying is done by a student, a teacher, a librarian or a library user."

The Supreme Court in CCH:

" Both the amount of the dealing and importance of the work allegedly infringed should be considered in assessing fairness. If the amount taken from a work is trivial, the fair dealing analysis need not be undertaken at all because the court will have concluded that there was no copyright infringement. ... For example, for the purpose of research or private study, it may be essential to copy an entire academic article or an entire judicial decision. However, if a work of literature is copied for the purpose of criticism, it will not likely be fair to include a full copy of the work in the critique. "

Thank goodness we have the Supreme Court!

John said...

So, I take it we can place Joe Clark, Darryl and RobfromCalgary in the "thanks for supporting libraries, Ms. Atwood, now shut up about copyright" camp.

The CCH decision was one decision on a very specific use of material in a very specific context. The whole decision, in fact, hangs on a definition of "original" that was applied specifically to the type of work being copied at the Great Library - legal decisions and analysis thereof.

I know the free-culturists like to extract bits of CCH out of that context and assume it creates broad precedents for "user rights," but I doubt future interpretations of the law, or rulings on fair dealing, will see it that way. You are welcome to continue leaning on that crutch all you want.

Considering the great potential for an over-broadening of fair-dealing and an imbalance within the law should education be introduced as a category, I think Ms. Atwood's comments before Parliament were remarkably prescient.

Darryl, if you have specific questions for Ms. Atwood you should address them to her directly. I've given her Twitter account.

Sandy Crawley said...


As John points out, CCH didn't change the law, it merely formed new jurisprudence and then in a narrow context. Unfortunately this has led those with an anti-compensation-for-creators bias to broadly misinterpret the decision and apply in every context they can imagine.

@ Joe Clark,

"in the tank for copyright collectives.." Really? Not only is that offensive it certainly implies that you must be "in the tank" for some other group. Would that be users? All users? So much sloppy thinking....

Anonymous said...


Thanks for adding your support to the overwhelming outcry we've seen for the library.
I love my library; it has everything I have ever looked for there, and has never cost a cent.

What library do you use, John?
BTW, mine is called limewire.

Anonymous said...

"BTW, mine is called limewire."

Very funny. "Your library" was shut down nearly 1 year ago and was sued by the RIAA for $75 trillion. Your library should have done a better job defending the rights of the creators. It's only a shame that the cretors will see very little of what is essentially won in outcome of the lawsuit.

Christopher Moore said...

Well said, John. We do need to go on defending libraries... and many other institutions. Too bad they never seem inclined to return the favour.

John said...


I assume you're refering also to zoos?