Meera Nair

Literature did not end in 1774

In Posts on December 18, 2010 at 5:08 pm

A friend sent me the latest Access Copyright e-newsletter for creator affiliates. With the heading of “Canadian creators making their voices heard,” the newsletter describes a recent advertisement published in the Globe and Mail and the Hill Times. The advertisement was supported by the Canadian Authors Association, The Writers Union of Canada, other literary associations, and specifically endorsed by many renowned Canadian writers. In their eyes Bill C-32 places Canada’s digital economy at risk by undermining the work of Canada’s creative community.

To lobby the Canadian government for copyright privileges is the right of any Canadian but to present Bill C-32 as compromising Canada’s creative future is absurd. Left unsaid is any reference to other forms of taxpayer-funded support that are provided to authors. The Canada Council has played a significant role in the development of Canadian literature. Grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council should also be recognized. And while dedicated arts funding from municipalities and provinces may have declined in recent years, those contributions should not be forgotten. It is disappointing to see Canada’s literary elite taking part in the misrepresentation of the implications of Bill C-32.

But did they have a choice? The lines drawn are ugly; Bill C-32 increasingly sits as an “us or them” proposition. Said another way, it is 1774 again.

This might be a good thing.

Book history and copyright enthusiasts alike will remember 1774 as the year of Donaldson v. Beckett. In that decision the House of Lords decisively ended the custom of perpetual copyright. Publishers fought strenuously to have the decision overturned, claiming that without perpetual copyright there would not be enough time to capture revenue from book sales. They foretold of the end of publishing and with it, the loss of literature.

In The Enlightenment and The Book (2006), Richard B. Sher writes:

[Bookseller-publishers] did what they could to recruit authors to their cause by scaring them with predictions of severe decreases to their copy money if the duration of copyright were restricted by statute; their efforts met with limited success. David Hume permitted his London publishers to use his name publicly, but in private he told one of them that he did not think the elimination of perpetual copyright would be likely to have “any such bad Consequences as you imagine.” (p.25).

Professor Sher’s past, and continuing, research offer compelling evidence that the literary publishing industry did not suffer dramatic change when copyright’s expanse was curtailed in 1774.

Including education as a permissible category of fair dealing will not bring havoc to Canadian writers. Michael Geist posted an FAQ on this matter – it ought to assuage the fears of Canada’s literary community. To suggest that inclusion of education to fair dealing is an unprecedented exception and will undermine Canada’s international obligations, as the advertisement did, is simply incorrect. A colleague dryly asked, “Have they not heard of a little place called the United States?” Codified into American law in 1976, Fair Use permits multiple copies of copyrighted material for classroom use, under the condition of a fairness test. Notably, it is the same fairness test advocated by the Supreme Court of Canada in March 2004, and most recently used by the Federal Court of Appeal in July 2010. The decision of July was favorable to writers and publishers when their works are used in educational settings.

So, disappointing as it was to see that list of names, I will focus instead on the pleasure their books have brought. Memorable was the night we listened to Margaret Atwood’s explanation of her first encounter with interest received from her bank – D. almost fell over from laughing. That gem is in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (of Massey Lecture fame.) My introduction to Charlotte Gray came via her biography of the lives of Susanna Moody and Catherine Parr Trail. These pioneering writers laboured under far more difficult circumstances than anything Canadians endure today. Gray mentions the difficulty of surviving on writing; Parr Trail only received “110 pounds on copyright and no royalties on the sales (p.125)” for The Backwoods of Canada. Even though the book became required reading for those considering emigration to British North America and helped keep “Mr. Charles Knights’ shaky publishing house afloat (p.126).” And Yann Martel’s Man Booker award-winning Life of Pi, beginning as it does in India, spoke to my multiple-cultural-identity-disorder. Can anyone forget the encounter at the seaside among the priest, imam and pandit?

More of my favourites to come another day. And I have every expectation that there will be even more, as of yet unwritten. Literature is much more than copyright.

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