Meera Nair

wrapping copyright in the maple leaf

In Posts on April 24, 2016 at 7:21 am

On Friday, The Globe and Mail published “Kids will suffer if Canada’s copyright legislation doesn’t change” by Kate Taylor. I usually enjoy reading Taylor’s work; her capacity to grasp the heart of an issue by delving into underlying facts is often impressive. Unfortunately, on this occasion, her exploration is incomplete and emotion is presented as analysis.

While amendment of the Copyright Act is a year away, there should be no doubt that lobbying has begun. As per the time-honoured script, the essential step is to wrap copyright in the maple leaf. The very fabric of Canada is under assault, and only strengthening copyright can save us all. The script makes for good drama, but is short on evidence.

Taylor, like John Degen last month and Heather Menzies earlier this year, places the challenges of Canada’s educational publishing industry at the feet of the 2012 statutory expansion of fair dealing. (Such a selective invocation of Canadian copyright-related history conveniently omits any mention of the role played by Access Copyright in bringing about the decline of collective licensing.) The claim that reduced revenue from textbook sales is due to unauthorized copying is not new. But when put to the Supreme Court, after consideration of all the facts, a majority of the judges felt that the conclusion did not logically follow:

Access Copyright pointed out that textbook sales had shrunk over 30 percent in 20 years.  … [but] there was no evidence that this decline was linked to photocopying done by teachers … several other factors [are] likely to have contributed to the decline in sales, such as the adoption of semester teaching, a decrease in registrations, the longer lifespan of textbooks, increased use of the Internet and other electronic tools, and more resource-based learning (para. 33).

But the rising use of Internet-based materials does not placate those who have taken it upon themselves to protect our children. Taylor writes: “ … teachers increasingly turn to free online materials, using fewer Canadian sources in the classroom and fewer materials directly tied to the provincial curriculum. [Advocates] are concerned there is no quality control of free material.” It is entirely plausible that the causality runs the other way: teachers are finding quality materials online, materials which also happen to be free. (The Khan Academy comes to mind.) But in the hands of those opposing any dilution of the traditional publishing industry, “free” and “online” are invoked with a dismissive air at best, or a pejorative connotation at worst.

Setting aside the prospects for alternative publishing models (for now), let us assume that Taylor’s, Degen’s and Menzies’ analyses are correct.  Let us assume that all the ills of the educational publishing sector are solely the fault of fair dealing. What then? Have any of them considered that years of expanding the scope of copyright has only meant that even more Canadian dollars flow out of the country than stay in? Since before Confederation, the market north of the 49th parallel has been dominated by foreign copyright holders. First British, then American. Copyright is a blunt instrument; any discussion of remedy via copyright should not ignore the trade imbalance. Applying copyright with broad brushstrokes through blanket licensing means fewer Canadian dollars are left to focus exclusively on Canadian creators.

Copyright governs much more than educational publishing, but even if it was confined to educational publishing, an important question has been left unanswered: Do Canadian sources make up the majority of all materials in all subjects taught in primary, secondary and tertiary education in Canada? If the answer is Yes, please provide evidence. If the answer is No, it is astounding that in the name of Canada, taxpayers, students and families are being chivied to provide more of our hard-earned dollars to predominantly benefit non-Canadian entities.

The effort spent railing about fair dealing could be better spent seeking measures that will target support directly to Canadian creators. Given the renewed spirit of federal-municipal relations, why not lobby for dedicated funding for school boards to support creation of open-education resources (OER) specifically to fill the need for Canadian content? Canadian history, geography, and politics could be addressed by local writers and illustrators, in collaboration with teachers, librarians, and archivists. How about seeking some manner of matched funds, to encourage every municipality to sponsor a writer-in-residence? What about expanding the existing Public Lending Right program to address nonfiction educational materials? A little imagination could bring about surprising dividends.

A Made-In-Canada approach to education is not a new concept. Law professor Myra Tawfik describes early 19th century efforts in Lower Canada to secure appropriate learning materials for children:

Lower Canadian teachers began to write or compile their own teaching manuals and schoolbooks. Preferring these to British or American imports and wanting to print multiple copies for use in their schools, they quickly discovered that the cost of printing their manuscripts was well beyond their means. Consequently, they began to petition the House of Assembly asking that it either assume the cost of printing or grant a sum of money to defray the costs (p.81).

Notably, when the House of Assembly delivered the requested support, it came with conditions regarding price and distribution.

As Canada approaches its 150th birthday, with a nod to the spirit that prompted the Massey Commission, the creation of the Canada Arts Council, and the emphasis upon Canadian Studies’ programs, it is time to focus on Canadian creators in a meaningful way.

 

  1. […] there have been some notable responses from people such as Meera Nair, many copyright watchers have remained largely silent, perhaps assuming that the reliance on false […]

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