Meera Nair

“history begins with geology”

In Posts on September 20, 2016 at 7:21 pm

Those were Margaret Atwood’s words as she gave the 2016 CLC Kreisel Lecture at the Winspear Centre in April of this year. Broadcast this past Friday via CBC’s radio program Ideas, the lecture—in content, form, and delivery—exemplifies, yet again, why Ms. Atwood is both a national and international treasure. If contemporary politics did intrude into her account of some of the events which shaped Canada’s literary landscape, I have to reach for every shred of temerity in my possession to point it out. But it needs to be done.

When explaining the origins of The Writers’ Union of Canada, Ms. Atwood said:

[there was] no-one to represent their interests, the interests of writers, as opposed to the interests of publishers, readers and libraries. The latter three felt in their hearts that simply being read was honour enough for a writer, no money need be expected. The writers on the other hand took the quaint position that what they did was work and they ought to be remunerated by those making use of it. Plus ça change. Those taking the view that writers’ work is like air, to be had for breathing, now include many internet pundits, some former members of our recently departed government, and a great many universities – those bastions of fair dealing.

Ms. Atwood paused, and some nervously–charged laughter came forth from the audience. The Kriesel Lecture takes place under the auspices of the Canadian Literature Centre, established at the University of Alberta in 2006; some (perhaps many) of those in attendance were likely to be fair dealing practitioners.

Ms. Atwood is, of course, entitled to hold and express any opinion she chooses. But the strength of her reputation and influence requires that some clarification follows where it is needed. Listeners present at the Winspear Centre that evening, or receiving Friday’s broadcast, or those who might yet encounter the Ideas website, may come away with the impression that fair dealing is a morally and legally reprehensible ruse that enables universities to deny remuneration to copyright owners with impunity. The truth is far more prosaic, as truth tends to be. From the days of its codification into law in 1710, copyright has never been a grant of absolute control; it is a system of limited rights. Fair dealing is one such limit; nothing more, nothing less.

The limits upon copyright ensure that creativity, innovation, and civil society may flourish, an objective which also happens to be the raison d’etre of universities. Universities handle fair dealing with care and pay fulsomely for the resources they consume. Generally speaking, limits are the mode of entry to a space where one might hope to emulate achievements of the past. All fair dealing can do is maintain the potential for a small realm of unauthorized use, legitimate under the law, where independent expression of thought may be cultivated. No doubt, some would prefer to see copyright function in absolute form, to the exclusive benefit of current copyright owners. Be that as it may, wishing does not make it so. The system of copyright must also nurture an author yet to come.

What I prefer to reflect on, to savour, is Ms. Atwood’s beautiful presentation of some of the people who contributed to the development of Canadian literature, and their efforts to build audiences and infrastructure for reception and publication of their work. The presentation itself was titled, The Burgess Shale: The Canadian Writing Landscape of the 1960s. Ms. Atwood explained that burgess shale is a particular geological formation found in Western Canada and that “history begins with geology. Geology determines what you can grow and extract, where you can build houses and so forth.”

Ms. Atwood detailed events of the 1960s and 1970s which created an environment conducive to Canadian letters. To obvious audience delight, she began with her own life story. The skills needed for the 1960s were honed in the 1950s, a decade Ms. Atwood described as “robust amateurism—acting one moment, painting sets the next.” The capacity to multi-task served that generation well, “when it was time for a bunch of kids who didn’t know what they were doing to start new publishing companies in Canada which we did in the 1960s.” Due to demographics (the Depression and WWII had taken its toll on birth rates), that generation’s services were in need: “… we stepped into a relative emptiness; we sought to fill it. We didn’t see why not.” Needs that were met creatively to say the least (the stories about the All-Star Eclectic Typewriter Revue and the Pornography Project are priceless; I will say no more than to recommend you listen for yourselves.)

But the limitations of an hour could not allow Ms. Atwood to convey a deeper geological survey of events prior to the 1940s. She remarked that Canadian literature had no presence in her early life; while an occasional Canadian creation might have appeared among the school-imposed diet of Hardy, Shakespeare, Eliot and Keats, “we weren’t taught Canadian literature as a subject in school.” A key difficulty for a Canadian author was the lack of literary infrastructure, a viciously circular problem. Canadian writers needed readers; without distribution, readers could not be had, and, without readers, distribution could not be entertained. But as to how this situation came about, that bedrock had solidified a century earlier.

The root cause was Canada’s inability to develop its own publishing industry in the 19th century. Caught between British Imperialism and American capitalism, Canadian publishers were prohibited from reprinting the bestsellers of the day, meaning those of prominent English authors, while American competitors were free to reprint those same works and capture the Canadian market. Canadian governments, of both Colonial and Dominion stature, laboured for years to develop an equitable copyright arrangement that would provide local publishing firms the option to supply their own markets and build their own capacity, by reprinting British works with permission and provision of royalties. The logic of the arrangement was consistently set aside by the British Crown, through invocation of the sanctity of copyright and the imperative of Empire. This, despite the fact that the copyright demanded of Canada did not serve Canadian writers. British copyright was to be respected in Canada, but Canadian writers, unless published in Britain, were not afforded any such protection.

British intransigence was due, not merely to slavish attention to the word “copy.” What Britain longed for was a reciprocal copyright arrangement with the United States, and Canada was the bargaining chip. Eventually reciprocity did come, but strictly on American terms: publication must use plates set in the United States, and occur prior to, or concurrent with, publication elsewhere. (Notably, the proposed Canadian offer was far more generous to the British; the proposal allowed delayed publication in Canada via imported plates.) Added to these conditions that ensured continued prosperity to American reprinters, the United States sought assurances from Britain that Canada would not interfere in American distribution in Canada.

Details of this period of time are covered in my work, “The Copyright Act of 1889—A Canadian Declaration of Independence, Canadian Historical Review (2009). For a complete monograph on the events of this time, Eli Maclaren’s work, Dominion and Agency – The Structuring of the Canadian Book Trade, 1867-1918 (2011) is stunning. Painstakingly researched, he confirms that the manner in which copyright law was applied to Canada diminished any ambition to build or support independent publishers of original Canadian material.

Even after Canada achieved some measure of copyright autonomy through amendments in 1900—when Canadian publishers could finally reproduce foreign work in conformity with the copyright owner’s wishes—the benefits of the Act principally accrued to established American publishers via branch-plant operations in Canada. Maclaren describes the dual-objectives of Macmillan Company of Canada as “[to] distribute the trade books of the London and New York houses to the Canadian market and publish textbooks for Canadian schools (p.123).” The omission of original publishing was not an oversight, original publishing was strictly frowned upon. When Frank Wise, president of the Canadian operation, requested that some manner of capital be kept available for publication of promising works, the head office made its displeasure quite clear:

… we should be more than a little surprised and displeased if you embarked upon any publishing venture of importance without consulting us. … The only kind of publishing which ought to originate in Canada is the production of school books authorized by one or the Provincial governments (p.124).

It was against this legacy that Ms. Atwood and her peers laboured. That they are to be congratulated is more than evident. But the congratulations should not eclipse what we know now—the fact that Canadian literature began even before Canada, exists during Canada and may safely be expected to endure in any Canada to come. First Nations’ culture has relied on story-telling since time immemorial, early colonists’ writings left a mark we feel even today (Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Trail come to mind) and even when fleeing Canada in search of markets, Canadian literature took shape under the themes of regionalism, as Nick Mount expertly uncovers in When Canadian Literature Moved to New York (2005). Mount does not valorize the writings of all Canadian expats, but lauds the importance of the Canadian community of writers, editors, and publishers that formed in New York to the advantage of Canadian writing.

It is the aspect of community that permeated Ms. Atwood’s recollections and was present in another address given earlier this year. As a keynote speaker at the Jaipur Literary Festival she invoked the theme of community on both global and individual scale. And she reminded listeners of the most intrinsic element of the community that underwrites literary effort:

Here we all are to celebrate books and authors and writing and yes, reading. Writers and readers are joined at the hip. Every act of writing presupposes a reader, even if it is your own secret journal and the future reader is you… Platforms may be changing but thanks to the Internet, reading has become more possible for more people than at any other time in history. … There is a lot more access to literacy than there used to be. …

With thanks to Margaret Atwood, and a great many universities. Those bastions of fair dealing.

preparation

In Posts on June 13, 2016 at 5:38 am

When the Copyright Act was last amended in 2012, the government of the day sought to accomplish a number of objectives. The summary of Bill C-32 (unveiled for first reading on 10 June 2010) detailed the legislative intent:

(a) update the rights and protections of copyright owners to better address the challenges and opportunities of the Internet, so as to be in line with international standards;
(b) clarify Internet service providers’ liability and make the enabling of online copyright infringement itself an infringement of copyright;
(c) permit businesses, educators and libraries to make greater use of copyright material in digital form;
(d) allow educators and students to make greater use of copyright material;
(e) permit certain uses of copyright material by consumers;
(f) give photographers the same rights as other creators;
(g) ensure that it remains technologically neutral; and
(h) mandate its review by Parliament every five years.

The language of (c) and (d) is clear; “greater use” implies greater than what had previously been feasible. The specific mention of of education as a permissible purpose of fair dealing and the introduction of exceptions to facilitate digital distribution by libraries or distance education programs, suggested that educators, libraries and students could enjoy greater use of copyright materials. With respect to (e), the implementation of exceptions for time or format shifts, the making of backups, and the creation of non-commercial user-generated content were all to the advantage of consumers. Yet the previous government’s insistence that digital locks reign supreme, rendered many of the new exceptions inert and reduced previous possibilities for unauthorized use of copyright material.

In 2010, it was no secret that the digital locks provision of Bill C-32 was modeled on the United States’ Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. Since its inception, the supremacy of locks in the United States has been systematically challenged through triennial reviews. Advocates for the lifting of blanket prohibition on circumvention could plead their case to the Librarian of Congress; if successful, they were granted a three-year lifting of the prohibition. (A notable reprieve occurred in 2006, in relation to educational uses of audio-visual works.) The latest review occurred in 2015; Mila Owen and Henry Thomas describe the outcome.

By the time C-32 was under discussion in Canada, it was abundantly evident that American overreach in protection of digital locks was impeding legitimate unauthorized uses (such as fair use) under American law.

Michael Geist declared Bill C-32 as “flawed but fixable.” However, the government refused to entertain thoughts of adjusting the prohibition on breaking digital locks; despite the logic that breaking a lock for a non-infringing use, should not trigger a charge of infringement. At a Standing Committee meeting on 25 November 2010, Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore appeared unconcerned about the wider implications of casting locks as sacrosanct; in response to a question posed by Liberal Member of Parliament Marc Garneau, about the inconsistency in the government’s actions, Moore gave a peculiar answer:

[It] is a question about balance, and as far as my personal digital media consumption habits, I personally choose to buy products that don’t have digital locks. It’s my right as a consumer to be able to do that. As we’re seeing increasingly with technology, certainly the music industry, the television industry, and the film industry are creating products where people have the right to shift things from one format to another. … if you look at all the submissions we have received–we’re talking about music, television, video, video games, the software industry–everybody believes that if they’ve invested money, labour, and effort to create products and decide to protect those products by whatever mechanisms they choose to digitally, they should be allowed to do that. And consumers are free to purchase or not purchase those devices.

Garneau then questioned Jean-Pierre Blais (Assistant Deputy Minister, Cultural Affairs, Department of Canadian Heritage) about digital locks, with specific reference to fair dealing:

I would like to ask for clarification on the issue of digital locks and fair dealing. Would you say that in this bill digital locks trump everything? For example, if somebody wants to produce educational materials under fair dealing but they have digital locks on them, would the person be prevented from doing so?

It required repeating the question, but Garneau was finally given an answer:

Garneau: Let me ask specifically about education. That’s the one I brought up. Do digital locks trump the use of material, copyrighted material, for educational purposes under “fair dealing”?
Jean-Pierre Blais: In the bill, as drafted, the answer is yes.

As we approach 2017, perhaps Minister Marc Garneau could share his past experiences with Minister Mélanie Joly and Minister Navdeep Bains as they prepare for the mandated review of the Copyright Act.

 

remembering Brian Dickson (1916-1998)

In Posts on May 19, 2016 at 6:04 am

Brian Dickson, more precisely The Right Honourable Robert George Brian Dickson, was born on 25 May 1916. Appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1973, he became Canada’s 15th Chief Justice in 1984. The centenary of his birth is a fitting time to remember his contribution to what many of us take for granted: the capacity of our legal system to adapt to the changing mores of Canadian society. Dickson also brought the subject of law closer to all Canadians, he championed clear, effective writing that was comprehensible on a wider scale. “We are not writing simply for legal academics or other judges. The cases we deal with … affect every man, woman, and child in the country.”

Robert J. Sharpe has written extensively about Brian Dickson in journal articles, and together with Kent Roach, authored a book (A Judge’s Journey, 2003). From the personal and professional details published, it is apparent that Dickson’s perspective on law was shaped by many chapters of his own life. As a child, he was confronted with the spectacle of ill-fated Prairie farmers who laboured for a lifetime, only to lose everything in the Depression. Following his studies in law, Dickson served in WWII; there, a severe injury resulted in an amputated leg and constant residual pain. Post WWII, he coupled a successful career as a corporate lawyer with constant public service. At the height of his corporate career, he chose to forsake it and immerse himself entirely in public service by accepting an appointment as a trial judge in Manitoba. A later appointment to the appellate court of Manitoba eventually led to his Supreme Court tenure.

Dickson’s life experiences abetted and honed his concern for maintaining harmony between the dignity of the individual and the well-being of the community. That dual priority, coupled with a brilliant mind, enriched Canadian public life for generations to come. As Chief Justice, Dickson set the tone during the early years of constitutional interpretation following the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

The Charter marked a prominent moment in the journey towards Canadian sovereignty. It defined our rights and freedoms, and placed ownership of those qualities firmly in Canadian hands. The Charter protected citizens against legislation enacted by governments that, despite perhaps best intentions, compromise the larger purpose of having a constitution. In the days following his appointment as Chief Justice, Dickson was keenly aware of the role of the Supreme Court as guardian of Canadians’ constitutional rights:

When there is breach of the fundamental rights and freedoms under the Charter of rights, we have been given the right, the duty and the responsibility to deal with it and it is our duty to strike [the violation] down.
–  quoted by John Hey, “The New Face of the Law,” Macleans, Vol 97, Issue 18, 1984

More than thirty years have passed since the Charter was unveiled; many Canadians are likely unaware of how contentious that desire for a Made-In-Canada constitution had been, and with what mistrust the Charter had been eyed when it did arrive. Some Canadians resisted decoupling the nation from the British yoke of sovereignty over Canadian affairs. Others worried that the courts would become too powerful, disrupting the role of Parliament. Another anxiety was that Canada was merely aping the mantra of rights emanating from our southern neighbors. But in a speech in 2013, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin (who has described her own early perspective of the Charter as “disinterested curiosity”) gave the definitive outcome: the Charter has stood the test of time and has helped forge a uniquely Canadian society.

[The Charter] reflected the kind of society Canadians wished to build for themselves and for generations to come. While patriation symbolized the raw fact of self-determination, the Charter made a statement about the ideals to which Canada should dedicate itself. Every nation needs a basic statement of what it stands for. For Canada, the Charter was that statement. …

[T]hirty years on, I think most would say that the patriation of the constitution was vital and that the Charter has stood the test of time. Canadians, polls consistently tell us, take pride in their Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It has, quite simply, become part of the Canadian identity. And it does not hurt that in the years since its adoption the principles enunciated in the Charter have been emulated abroad and the decisions of the Supreme Court interpreting them studied by courts and scholars throughout the world.

The distinctiveness of our Charter, and its capacity to foster balance among rights for all, may very well lie in its preamble. Our cherished constitution begins with a disclaimer:

S.1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

Our guaranteed rights are limited. That statement is not as paradoxical as it sounds; in terms of individual interaction, it is not difficult to foresee that an unbridled enjoyment by individuals of their rights could lead to the violation of others’ rights.

But those justifiable limits must be carefully handled. Early on, Dickson set the standard for application of the limiting clause. In R. v. Big M. Drug Mart Ltd. (1985) he wrote:

At the outset, it should be noted that not every government interest or policy objective is entitled to s. 1 consideration. Principles will have to be developed for recognizing which government objectives are of sufficient importance to warrant overriding a constitutionally protected right or freedom. Once a sufficiently significant government interest is recognized then it must be decided if the means chosen to achieve this interest are reasonable‑‑a form of proportionality test. The court may wish to ask whether the means adopted to achieve the end sought do so by impairing as little as possible the right or freedom in question.

Shortly thereafter, Dickson went further in defining the role of courts when consideration of the Charter itself is required. In R. v. Oakes (1986) he wrote:

The Court must be guided by the values and principles essential to a free and democratic society which I believe embody, to name but a few, respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, commitment to social justice and equality, accommodation of a wide variety of beliefs, respect for cultural and group identity, and faith in social and political institutions which enhance the participation of individuals and groups in society.

Even before the Charter, Dickson had championed broader consideration of the social context of disputes, decisions and penalties. Sharpe describes a particularly poignant element of Dickson’s approach to law; in his early days as a trial judge, “… before passing sentence, he spent a day at Stoney Mountain Penitentiary and then proceeded to visit the Selkirk Mental Hospital (p.15).”

Along with situating the law within Canadian life, Dickson also ensured that decisions were accessible to all Canadians. Accessibility in this sense meant comprehensible. Dickson eschewed the formalistic, jargon ridden prose of the courts of the day; he championed clear prose, within reach of those outside of the legal sphere.

For Dickson, it was no longer sufficient for courts to rely solely on a mechanical recitation of precedent; a good judgment began from principle and was substantiated by reason. Dickson led by example and set a new standard for the Canadian judiciary. Even his criticism of the poor quality of existing judgments is precise, evocative, and leaves a reader wanting more: “Thoughts straggle across the printed page like a gaggle of geese, without form, without beginning or end, lacking in coherence, convincingness, conciseness (quoted in Sharpe and Roach, p.204).”

It may be overstating it, to say that but for Dickson most Canadians outside the purview of Law would have been unable to participate in matters of law. However, it is more than reasonable to claim that Brian Dickson’s stance hastened our opportunity.