Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Margaret Atwood calls out Canadian universities on copyright

The incomparable Margaret Atwood turned 75 last month, and was duly celebrated by her community of Canadian authors, readers and supporters of the literary arts. The Writers' Trust of Canada, a fundraising and awards-presenting not for profit (the "little sister" organization to The Writers' Union of Canada - both of which were founded by Atwood and her partner Graeme Gibson), dedicated their annual fundraising gala to a celebration of this momentous anniversary.

The Trust held a huge party for Atwood and all her admirers at Toronto's Four Seasons hotel, complete with a bookish cake, much champagne and a perhaps unexpected barn-burner of a thank you speech from Atwood herself.

In her speech, Atwood called out the Canadian educational sector for, as she put it, misuse of author copyright:
"...cultural creators are under increased threat: a worried publishing industry, and a university sector that under a badly-written copyright law feels entitled to help itself to creators’ content have not improved the lives of writers.
How many millions of dollars have been removed from authors through universities’ misuse of their copyright? And often by the same universities that charge 18 thousand dollars for an MFA in 'Creative Writing.' 
There's a disjunct there. Sort of like saying okay, we'll teach you to be a doctor but by the way you've got to doctor for us for nothing."

While I fully expect university administrations across Canada to pretend this speech never happened, and to continue to pretend their interpretation of fair dealing is all about student access and not about saving tonnes of money on the backs of authors, I'm guessing it's going to be harder and harder for them to convince anyone they have a morally sustainable position.

Witness the rather vulgar spectacle of the University of Western Ontario fundraising for themselves by claiming Nobel laureate Alice Munro as their very own, all while they refuse to sign a copyright license that would protect Ms. Munro's rights as an author.

Good on Margaret Atwood for telling it like it is (as she always does). What is this awful lesson our university sector is trying to teach?

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