Meera Nair


In Posts on October 14, 2018 at 9:10 pm

As of this writing, in the ongoing review of the Copyright Act, 87 briefs have been posted by the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology. Discussion spans a variety of topics; on the volatile issue of the use of fair dealing in post-secondary institutions, there are many submissions from academic institutions, as well as Canadian writers, publishers, and representatives thereof.

Perhaps lost in that crush are students’ voices. Writing on behalf of students across the country, are two organizations: the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) and the Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities. Each submission calls on the Government to leave fair dealing unchanged from its present incarnation and practice. The students are clear in their understanding of the exception—that fair dealing is not a veil for free dealing. They also appreciate that fair dealing has the capacity to reduce some of the costs of post-secondary education.

CASA’s submission reminds all that collective licensing costs attributed to post-secondary institutions will ultimately be borne by students:

Post-secondary students are directly impacted by decisions of the Copyright Board … as it is responsible for setting tariffs on copyrighted educational material. While these tariffs are billed to post-secondary institutions, they are sometimes directly passed on to students through ancillary fees … Other times, the tariff fee is paid through [the institution’s] operating budget, which constrains the institution’s ability to provide other critical resources, including updated infrastructure and quality teaching staff, to post-secondary students.

This aspect has not received as much attention as it deserves. That said, the issue of cost was raised to the Standing Committee, but only to quantify the collective license fee as equivalent to “a case of beer per student.” While this may have been an attempt to reassure the Committee that students can bear this cost, the unspoken assumption was that all students rely on excerpts (thus necessitating a fee).

In terms of how students cope with existing fees, Aran Armutlu, chairperson of the BC Federation of Students, recently had this to say:

“Assume every student is going through financial hardship.” As assumptions go, this one is more plausible.

A day later, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) issued promising news with respect to OER:

(Even though OER was still in its infancy in 2013, SPARC had issued a challenge to the educational community: to save $1 billion by 2018.)

Consider the time frame: 2013-2018. Astute Canadians will notice the overlap with the period of time from the last amendments to the Copyright Act, to the start of the present review. To be more explicit—this is part of the backdrop to the figures proffered to the Committee that illustrated declines in copyright-related income by educational publishers.

As SPARC explains, the goal was to document the savings that accrued when a “traditional textbook” (with traditional representing a proprietary, for-cost textbook) was replaced with an OER book. The regions/levels of savings are:

U.S. & Canada Higher Ed: $921,783,169
U.S. & Canada K-12: $45,051,066
International: $38,500,000
Total: $1,005,334,235

Without further details of the Higher Ed savings, we do not know how much of the nearly $922 million dollars is specific to Canadian students. Yet, a reasonable assumption would be that millions of dollars are being saved. This is relevant to any discussion concerning declines in textbook income, or declines in licensing income from excerpts of textbooks.

Committee members could also reasonably assume that post-secondary institutions are slowly, but steadily, addressing the question posed by Mr. Armutlu: “If there are other quality options that exist that help alleviate those costs, why wouldn’t you use it?” The trend to OER is likely to increase.

Granted, at this time, OER substitution is not prevalent at all levels of study across all disciplines. But, SPARC’s data should provoke at least a modicum of curiosity against the claims that fair dealing alone is responsible for the drop in income of copyright owners, and, whether reliance on excerpts applies to the entirety of the Canadian post-secondary student population.

a different perspective

In Posts on September 24, 2018 at 7:18 pm

On 12 September 2018, the Edmonton Journal published an article of mine in print and online editions, where I emphasize the role of exceptions in the growth of billion-dollar media and content industries. Below is the original, longer form, of that article.

As the summer recess ends, Members of Parliament are returning to Ottawa to resume the business of the nation, including a review of the Copyright Act. Judging from transcripts of meetings held last spring, tensions run high among stakeholders. The general dispute is one of control versus legitimate unauthorized uses, education being a particularly thorny issue.

Transcripts of similar meetings from the 1980s, 1990s, and the 2000s, reveal that relations between educational institutions and copyright owners have always been strained. Institutions cite statutes that position copyright as a means of encouraging learning, while owners swear by the rights of the author. Both perspectives have roots in history. The Anglo-American common-law tradition placed the control of copyright, with measures of unauthorized use, as integral to developing publishing sectors. Whereas the civil-law tradition led by France argued that intellectual effort was nothing less than a living part of its creator and must be protected as such.

Yet both themes were relevant on both sides of the Atlantic. Differences were only a matter of timing. Nation-states eager to build their publishing sectors favored lesser control in the name of copyright. After creative assets were amassed, those same states offered holier-than-thou pronouncements about copyright. However, in neither tradition were authors, or students, central players in the various statutes.

Despite this, the figure of the starving author is the principal exhibit during any discussion of copyright. It appeared in 1710—when copyright attained a legal persona—and returned with each copyright expansion thereafter. If, 308 years later, authors are still starving, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that copyright alone cannot assure prosperity for an author. First and foremost, an author needs readers.

For Canadian authors, this challenge is not new. Even without competitors—beginning with Charles Dickens and continuing well past Harper Lee—Canada’s population was not enough to sustain Canadian authors. Even increasing the control exerted through copyright and holding students as a captive market cannot guarantee returns to Canadian authors. Particularly as foreign educational and research-oriented publications dominate the material read in post-secondary institutions.

As MPs wrestle with this review, they might consider a different perspective concerning the system of copyright—that it is not merely about what we read, view or listen to, but how we read, view and listen. Media development is enabled not by copyright, but by exceptions to copyright. Those uncontrolled spaces, where content is unprotected, allows new media to thrive, legitimately, to the benefit of a country’s economic and creative growth.

For instance, in the early twentieth-century, player pianos were in vogue. That success is directly attributable to a copyright law that did not protect music represented and conveyed through mechanical means. According to historian Harvey Roehl, in 1923 the player piano industry produced over 347,000 pianos and achieved over $100 million in sales. (In today’s American dollars, approximately $1.5 billion.) People feared that the technology would spell the death of music, but the new market for piano rolls spurred original composition. The leading player-piano manufacturers were eager to represent popular composers, selling not only their existing works, but also music composed expressly for piano-roll distribution (George Gershwin’s tale is legendary).

Another media technology worth remembering is the video cassette recorder. American film executives fought tooth-and-nail to have it killed; but in 1984, the United States’ Supreme Court ruled that the equipment was lawful. By the 1990s, the film industry was praising the new markets made available by the technology. Consumers were eager to pay for personal copies of favorite movies, which led to increased production of new films. Drawing from data compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission, in 1992 earnings via direct-sale to North American consumers reached $2.5 billion and in 1993 earnings from global markets were approximately $5 billion. All this out of a technology that Jack Valenti, then-president of the Motion Pictures Association of America, had likened to the Boston Strangler a decade earlier.

With respect to contemporary technology, MPs might find U.K. research to be helpful. In 2010, then-Prime Minister David Cameron ordered a review of their intellectual property law to enhance innovation and creativity in the digital age. In the ensuing report, the lead investigator Ian Hargreaves wrote: “Could it be true that laws designed more than three centuries ago with the express purpose of creating economic incentives for innovation by protecting creators’ rights are today obstructing innovation and economic growth? The short answer is: yes.” A year later, Hargreaves explained that Cameron had been particularly interested in the role exceptions had played in the development of search engines, namely Google.

This past summer, social media were buzzing in anticipation: would Google become the first trillion-dollar company? (Strictly speaking, it would have been Alphabet, parent company of Google, who could claim that title.) Apple emerged the winner; regardless, lawmakers should not forget that Alphabet exists because of Google and employs nearly 90,000 people worldwide. Of course, billion-dollar media industries with plentiful jobs do not arise solely from flexible exceptions within the system of copyright. But such industries could not arise without them.

Opponents of exceptions will criticize any amendment that appears to favour industries over authors. MPs might find strength of resolve through the work of Nick Mount, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, who is respected by authors and educators alike. In his landmark book, Arrival—the Story of CanLit, Mount illustrates that general economic prosperity enabled CanLit to reach the success we see today, and concludes by saying Canada “is producing many more writers and many more books than ever before.”

For those interested, further reading:

James Boyle (who served as an expert adviser for the British Review) on the Hargreaves Report: “Copyright is supposed to make, not to break, markets. Yet the Review found that innovative digital businesses were strangling in the tangled web of licensing copyright has created.  As technologies have developed, copyright has created right after right to deal with them, each jealously guarded by its own collection society. Pity the poor entrepreneur who wants to create a new legal business and finds that technological happenstance means multiple rights are involved. This is good for no one (except the middle-men.)”

Stephen Advokat, A new era for Hollywood, Chicago Tribune, 3 January 1986.

Fred von Lohmann, “Fair Use as Innovation Policy,” Berkeley Technology Law Journal (2008). “This article contends that copyright law’s historical tolerance for such copying as a fair use has served as an important element of both copyright and innovation policy. This is because, to the extent it permits private copying, fair use creates incentives for technology companies to build innovative new products that enable such copying. Far from being an unfair “subsidy” from copyright owners to technology innovators, this aspect of fair use has yielded complementary technologies that enhance the value of copyrighted works.”

V.S. Naipaul and copyright

In Posts on September 5, 2018 at 8:18 pm

Following V.S. Naipaul’s death (1932-2018), I picked up his books again. They had been within reach throughout my life, yet I had never been too eager to read them. Naipaul’s views about India had not sat well; a seeming hostility heightened by an adoration of Britain. That Imperial overlords had sent his grandfather from India, to serve as an indentured labourer for estate owners in the West Indies, made it even more baffling.

Whereas my maternal grandfather, in joint opposition to both his caste-conscious family and British divine right claimants, had performed his own version of Quit India by moving to casteless Burma (Myanmar). He maintained a lifelong, faithful adherence to the Gandhian vision of an independent, secular India, one that aspired to equality for all, regardless of caste or gender. From that familial background, Nobel Prize notwithstanding, the sharpness of Naipaul’s pen was too alien for my tastes.

But the man was dead now, reading a book seemed the least I could do. A House for Mr. Biswas beckoned, a 1961 paperback edition brought out by Penguin Books. I glanced at the front matter, searching for that preliminary content which might influence how a reader approaches an author’s work.

In the words of literary theorist Gérard Genette, this is the realm of the paratext; that “vestibule,” where, before stepping inside the text, a reader is presented with information that might secure “a better reception for the text.” A paratext might include a preface (those guiding words in a detached voice), or the not-so-subtle extolling of past success (the lavish praise received in the wake of an author’s earlier works).

And then there are paratexts that carry a hue of legality.

Accustomed as I am to seeing maximalist copyright paratexts—those strident notices that, in violation of copyright law, prohibit any and all copying—this paratext was different:

Copyright © V.S. Naipaul
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher (emphasis mine).

The reader was only urged to be aware that unauthorized books might be in circulation. Penguin Books likely hoped that readers would apply the market force necessary to keep rival publishers in line, but the reader is largely left alone.

Appealing to readers to maintain markets was not new, even in 1961.

Robert Spoo, an authority in both law and literature, has written extensively about courtesy paratexts, those notices used by nineteenth century American publishers to illustrate that their dealings with British books were with the consent of the British author. At that time, American copyright law did not extend to protecting foreign works; freely using British writing was a legitimate option, available to the entire American publishing industry. To manage the temptation of undercutting one another, to avoid a race-to-the-bottom in the pricing of reprints, larger American publishing houses agreed not to poach authors’ works, once a particular house had secured the author’s consent.

Consent was usually obtained with a courtesy payment from the American publisher to the British copyright-owner. While British authors and publishers fumed at their lack of control in this system, a Royal Commission on copyright carried out by the British Government (1876-1878) confirmed that many British authors and publishers profited handsomely through these arrangements (though at Canada’s expense, i.e., see here or here.)

However, these gentlemen’s agreements were not always respected, particularly when the writer was popular with American readers. A few words from the author could confer some respectability upon the publisher in the eyes of the market, and increase the likelihood of holding that market. Within Spoo’s work are examples, exhibiting a range of tone from the humble words of Robert Browning to the distinctly legal’esque language of Charles Dickens.

Returning to the Naipaul collection, a paperback copy of India, A Million Mutinies Now (a Minerva edition dating to 1990), reveals the same paratext as found in Mr. Biswas. However, a Viking Penguin hardcover offering of the same book, of the same year, extolls this:

Copyright © V.S. Naipaul, 1990
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

It is bizarre even to suggest that the lengthy prohibition of reproduction etc., could limit the rights under copyright—given that the notice exceeds what copyright provides under law.

But this nonsensical statement makes some sense if it is read, not as prohibition to readers, but as a warning to would-be pirate publishers. The notice tells prospective resellers that the road to Million Mutinies must go through not only Viking, but Naipaul as well. From that, a reader could assume that Naipaul did not hand over all the meaningful aspects of copyright (control over reproduction etc.) to Viking.

Continuing my Naipaulian-guided exploration of copyright-paratexts; a 2011 edition of A Way in the World  (issued by Picador), begins by scrupulously noting that the book was published in 1994 by William Heinemann, in 1995 by Minerva, and then in 2001 by Vintage (Random House). It ends with the prohibition on circulation in any other form of binding or cover.

In between, the author surfaces; Naipaul’s claim of copyright for the book in 1994, and in the preface in 2011, are explicit. Curiously though, while claiming copyright required no justification, claiming authorship did: “The right of V.S. Naipaul to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.”

The remainder of the copyright-paratext takes on a biblical tone of crime and punishment:

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

The overreach on the scope of copyright is astounding. Limitations/exceptions to copyright are always an option. So said Canada’s former Chief Justice Beverley Mclachlin in 2004: “Fair dealing is always available.”

All copyright statutes of countries participating in international treaties, will have sanctioned some degree of unauthorized use of copyrighted work. The Marrakesh Treaty (created in 2013 to support perceptually disabled people) comes to mind, but even the Berne Convention (created in 1886 ostensibly to better support authors) does not omit unauthorized uses.

Even without international prodding, countries may amend their exceptions to ensure that a system purporting to support authors has the capacity to fulfill that expectation. Canada’s best adjustment may well be S29.21.

In terms of the criminality of unauthorized use, in Canada such remedies generally pertain to commercial malfeasance; i.e., sale of the work without consent. Arguably, this paratext speaks only in terms of “may be liable” but in the hypersensitive copyright-age we live in, such a notice is enough to scare off any teacher or student from exercising fair dealing. I wonder if authors are aware of the misrepresentation of the law that is presented in their names.

Furthermore, how often do authors retain their copyright? How often do they retain it in more than name only? Does having a copyright actually translate into royalties when books are sold? What happens when books fall out of print; do the rights revert to the author? Are authors (and their estates) aware of explicit statutory provisions for reversion of rights? (Rebecca Giblin’s work, particularly the Authors Interest Project, probes these questions.)

Naipaul seemed to be aware of the importance of copyright; from his earliest publications (by André Deutsch Limited) on, Naipaul consistently declared his copyright and renewed it as necessary. That command of copyright continued even where he was not the sole author. The copyright paratext in the published correspondence between Naipaul and his family, entitled Letters Between a Father and a Son (Little, Brown and Company, 1999), tells a story of its own:

Copyright © V. S. Naipaul 1999
The moral right of the author has been asserted.

The moral right of the author is startling to say the least. There are five authors in this collection: Naipaul, his sister Kamla, their father and mother–Seepersad Naipaul and Droapatie Capildeo–and Gillon Aitken (editor of the collection and author of the introduction). Granted, V.S. Naipaul’s letters form the majority of the book, and his parents were dead at the time of publication. However, all authors ought to have been entitled to recognition and reservation of rights with respect to their own original work.

Perhaps these matters were discussed, explained, and executed with consent from the living parties.

Back to Mr. Biswas.