Meera Nair

Indigenous paradigms

In Posts on June 25, 2018 at 8:09 am

This post is a bit late; it is my contribution to #IndigenousPeoplesDay.

In December 2017 Ministers Navdeep Bains and Melanie Joly jointly issued instructions to Members of Parliament charged with carrying out the Review of the Copyright Act. Among many details, the Ministers invited Members “to pay special attention to the needs and interests of Indigenous peoples as part of Canada’s cross-cutting efforts at reconciliation.”

Historically, Indigenous creative effort has not fared well under the modern paradigm of intellectual property rights. From looting of artifacts to casual help-ourselves approaches to indigenous design, indigenous assets, often described as cultural property and traditional knowledge, are used in ways that violate their traditions and laws. To the extent that others commercialize such assets, rarely do gains flow back to the community.

From the first meeting on, Committee members sought input from witnesses on this topic. In oral testimony, and submitted briefs, there is consensus that this challenge needs attention; this may be the one point of unity among all stakeholders of the copyright review. That in itself is encouraging.

However, it is difficult to make progress on this front under the auspices of copyright. The Copyright Act is structurally antagonistic to the principle characteristics of indigenous cultural property and traditional knowledge, namely they lack specific authorship (which is key to claiming ownership under the Act) and may date back to antiquity (which invariably places them in what is considered the public domain*).

As we wrestle with the intricacies of this challenge, there are other ways to show support and facilitate more respectful use of Indigenous materials.

In July 2016, An Open Licensing Scheme for Traditional Knowledge was jointly put forward by the Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (University of Ottawa) and the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre (Carleton University). The scheme “aims to give Indigenous communities new tools to exert control over their traditional knowledge [and] clarify expectations of those seeking licensing rights and other downstream uses (8).”

Modeled in the fashion of Creative Commons licenses, where a visual label indicates the creator’s wishes in terms of subsequent use, the researchers revealed a slate of possible labels including: Give Back / Reciprocity; Community Consent, Use-Based / Noncommercial; Education and Research Only; etc.  They also drew attention to two other similar, active, operations with respect to labels as a means of communication: the Mukurtu Project and its sister organization Local Contexts. While communication cannot guarantee respect for the wishes of Indigenous communities, it is a starting point.

In addition, Canadians could consider that Indigenous paradigms about creative endeavor are more akin to the creative process, than modern insistence that creativity is an individual exercise and that property is strictly private. My research looks at the overlap of Indigenous paradigms with Canadian copyright law — not in terms of the specificity of legal language, but in the processes that underwrite and shape creativity itself.

To be clear, when I use the phrase Indigenous paradigms, I am not suggesting a uniformity of thought, tradition or law, across the many Indigenous communities situated within Canada. Rather, the phrase is an attempt to describe a different approach to creativity and property than that which followed in the wake of Judeo-Christian theological teachings or (for the more secular minded) the writings of John Locke. Modern conceptions of intellectual property are rooted in assumptions about property itself – chief among them, the misconception that a right of property is absolute in its control and capacity to exclude others. (Even the most treasured property – land – is subject to measures deemed essential to the public good: building codes, zoning divisions, environmental laws, etc.)

All music, art, poetry and literature are creative outcomes via time immemorial communities of musicians, artists, poets and writers. This is hardly a revelation; Northrop Frye’s words have been with us for over sixty years: “Poetry can only be made from other poems, novels from other novels. All this was much clearer, before the assimilation of literature to private enterprise concealed so many of the facts of criticism.”

Briefly, that assimilation to private enterprise was largely carried out through the introduction and expansion of copyright. Those events are intertwined with the rise of the reading public, the shaping of a book market, new technology; events that combined to alter the perspective of where art, music and literature came from. While previously art was allied to the Divine – inspired by and in service to – the Romantics were never too happy with a world in which books were articles of sale, and writers were mere producers of commodities. As authors wrestled with changing streams of income and the need to compete in a marketplace, the idea of the individual creative genius whose work is original unto himself served to shelter the esteem of an author and justify the boundary of property around a creation. Ironically though, authors themselves were never a focal point in the development of copyright law.

In concert with the universality of the process of creativity is a bond between creative artifact and the author, artist, musician etc. In intellectual property law, this has a name: moral rights. (The term is misleading; despite the somewhat pious inference, the rights reflect personal connections between the creator and the thing-created.) Among moral rights is the protection of the integrity of the work – the creative artifact has a persona,** which sits in relation to the creator.

And there might be another relationship present; Rudyard Kipling famously spoke of daemons who led the creative process, writers must “drift, wait, obey.” Contemporary writers are not shy of acknowledging this third-party, Elizabeth Gilbert and Philip Pullman come to mind. Even without this partner, writers may have the eerie feeling that their characters are writing their own story. (I welcome input from writers of fiction.)

This nexus of relationships occurs with the creative artifact situated at the centre and a community of writers engaging in relationship with it. A set of relations that is similar to the structure of Indigenous cultural property/traditional knowledge. It is the interpretation of property that differs between Indigenous and non-Indigenous paradigms; in Indigenous hands, property is far more immersive, far more relational, one belongs to the property as compared to the converse interpretation of property by non-Indigenous legal paradigms.***

As I wrote in my brief to the Standing Committee: “… recognizing indigenous traditions that we implicitly already follow, supports the objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, particularly the recurring call for better integration of indigenous law into Canadian life

Much as we acknowledge that the physical ground beneath our feet is Indigenous territory, we ought also to acknowledge those Indigenous paradigms which serve as the foundation to our daily creative effort.


* My research offers an alternative, legitimate conception of the public domain that is more flexible in its composition — I draw from the work of Jessica Litman and our Supreme Court decisions.

** Anishinaabe legal scholar Aimée Craft reminds us that some jurisdictions have granted personhood to bodies of water. That physical or cultural property could have agency, at least in legal proceedings, is, again, not a revelation.

*** Brian Noble, “Owning as Belonging/Owning as Property …” in Catherine Bell and Val Napoleon, eds., First Nations Cultural Heritage and Law (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008) 465.

my brief for the Copyright Review

In Posts on June 1, 2018 at 11:14 am

As submitted to the Standing Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to contribute to the examination, and potential revision, of the Copyright Act. This subject has occupied my attention for nearly fourteen years, through life as a graduate student, teacher, researcher, administrator, and parent.

Copyright is a seemingly straight-forward provision; a measure within law that allows a copyright owner to monetize intellectual effort, by controlling (among other things) the right of reproduction. This control is not absolute; it is limited in time by expiry and in space by some rights of use (those statutory exceptions defined in the Copyright Act). Taken together, rights of control and rights of use form the system of copyright and might foster future creativity.

An impediment to fruitful operation of the system is the misunderstanding that authors lie at the heart of the system. Whereas the system was only designed to bring some stability among feuding 18th century publishers. Nevertheless, for over three centuries, control via copyright expanded in depth and breadth, always through the plea that authors were living in poverty. One may rightly ask: if authors are still in dire straits after 308 years of copyright expansion, is copyright their real problem and can it provide a meaningful solution?

The rhetoric escalates with every revision of the Copyright Act; copyright is deemed essential to the very existence of Canadian culture. But copyright is a blunt instrument; it cannot distinguish between literary superstars and novice writers, between fostering a homegrown operation and an international publishing conglomerate, and, between writing for an audience and writing for financial gain. Revision of the Act must be carefully handled, with the commercial trade imbalance kept uppermost in mind.

On the following pages are my recommendations for action the Federal Government could undertake, with (and without) change to the Copyright Act. Four themes are addressed:

  • Preserving Canadian content.
  • Deterring copyright abuse.
  • Fostering Canadian creativity, exceptions and other means.
  • The system of copyright, in support of reconciliation.

Regards,
Meera Nair, Ph.D.
Edmonton, AB

 

good news

In Posts on April 23, 2018 at 6:29 am

Today marks World Book and Copyright Day. The United Nations explains the choice of date as “a symbolic date for world literature,” in part because 23 April 1616 marked the deaths of Miguel de Cervantes, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, and William Shakespeare. The connection between title and titans seem at best, tenuous — World Writers Day might have been better? — but we may as well take the opportunity to celebrate the successes of Canadian writers and publishers.

In The Daily, issued by Statistics Canada on 23 March 2018, data for 2016 reveals that “The Canadian book publishers industry generated operating revenue of $1.6 billion in 2016, down 0.6% compared with 2014.”

That may not seem like cause for celebration. But it is easily good news, when placed in context: 2016 was a difficult year for the industry as a whole. In an article from Publisher’s Weekly, dated to 25 August 2017, Jim Milliot wr0te: “Although total revenue of the world’s 50 largest book publishers topped $50 billion in 2016, last year was not an easy one for global publishing giants. Less than half of the top 50 publishers posted revenue gains in 2016, with the balance reporting sales declines.”

In comparison then, the next sentence from Statistics Canada is even more gratifying: “Operating expenses decreased 1.4% to $1.5 billion, resulting in an operating profit margin of 10.2%.” In light of global trends, to have any profit margin at all may claim congratulations to that sector.

Reading further, the data continues on a positive theme:

Total sales amounted to $1.5 billion in 2016. Of total sales, Canadian book sales increased 0.5% from 2014 to $1.4 billion in 2016, while all other sales declined 7.9% to $108 million. Of the $1.4 billion in Canadian book sales generated in 2016, 53.8% was attributable to foreign controlled firms, while 46.2% was generated by Canadian controlled firms. Domestic sales accounted for 81.0% of Canadian book sales, while export sales made up the remaining 19.0%. Exports sales increased 11.8% in 2016 to $260.5 million. … Canadian authors accounted for 51.1% of total sales in 2016, up from 48.9% in 2014.

So Canadian book sales increased, under near parity of influence between publishing firms under foreign control and Canadian control. Given that through most of Canada’s existence, our reading and book-selling landscape was overwhelmingly dominated by foreign publishers and printers, this is good news indeed. Moreover, while only 19% of Canadian book sales went to export markets, the fact that those sales increased by nearly 12 % in the space of two years is positively noteworthy. Canadians (both writers and publishers) are making their mark on this world.

Yet, despite evidence of a resilient industry and successful writers, there are many who will continue to insist that because of fair dealing, the Canadian writing enterprise is suffering—that because Canadian educators may legitimately use some portions of published material without authorization, returns to Canadian publishers are compromised, which will lead to a decline in writing in Canada.

As I wrote in my last post, drawing from the work of one of Canada’s most respected authorities on Canadian Literature — Arrival: the Story of CanLit by Nick Mount — Canadian content is simply not being prescribed for curriculum as it used to be. A point I did not emphasize then, but bears mentioning now, is Mount’s enthusiasm regarding the proliferation of writers and books in Canada:

The country is producing many more writers and many more books than ever before, books by and about many different kinds of Canadians than ever before. It also has more readers—they’re just spread out now, among so many books, and so many more ways to read, that it’s hard to see them all (p.293).

According to Statistics Canada, domestic sales have declined by 1.9% since 2014. However, educational titles increased by 4.9%.  This is intriguing, given the publishing industry’s own investigation concerning the selection of resources for use in Canadian classrooms. A report titled Digital Trends and Initiatives in Education—The Changing Landscape for Canadian Content (produced by the Association of Canadian Publishers and released in March 2017) provides a comprehensive examination of the education sector’s approach to choosing resources, to the conclusion that openly licensed content has become a notable component of resources in both the post-secondary and K-12 sectors (p.24).

Michael Geist covered the report in some detail and observes: “… despite the ACP’s insistence in lobbying efforts that copyright is at the heart of publisher concerns, copyright and fair dealing are limited to a single reference with no discussion or analysis. … The report provides several recommendations, none of which involve copyright reform.”

The report’s authors express concern for: (i) the reduction in prescription of Canadian content in the K-12 sector; and (ii) the lack of guidance for teachers for evaluation of free or openly licensed content. They write:

… without clear direction, teachers may continue to use material that has not been appropriately vetted for use in an educational setting. This belief is not intended to diminish the role teachers play in selecting the right content for their students, but rather serves to highlight the fact that teachers do not all have the time nor the expertise to thoroughly evaluate or authenticate every piece of content accessed by themselves or their students (p.4).

I cannot speak to that concern—it is a matter of discussion best left to teachers. The report’s authors press the need for using good Canadian content in our schools–this is perhaps a good time to ask again, What is Canadian Content? In any case, it remains that in the hands of one who has diligently studied/explored a subject, and whose passion to communicate is evident, even a Twitter thread can form educational content. This past Sunday’s reading included a 12-part lesson by Joanne Hammond, describing the events leading to the establishment of reserves in British Columbia, replete with archival maps and images.

To return to the celebration of World Book and Copyright Day, though it is repetition, Mount deserves to have the last word: “The country is producing many more writers and many more books than ever before.”