Meera Nair

Archive for 2017|Yearly archive page

the golden age

In Posts on September 4, 2017 at 11:15 am

Another Labour Day has arrived and a new school year is underway. It seems befitting to continue exploring the often tension-ridden relationship between creators of educational material and users thereof. As I described last week via Policy Options: “the story of an ongoing disaster for writers and publishers—supposedly due to errant Supreme Court justices and negligent government—has played out in the press, at international gatherings and in literary journals.” Attacks on the post-secondary sector have been increasingly brazen this year;* for those who are becoming fatigued by the degree and volume of misinformation, I would like to share two points of good news.

First, this is not new.

There is a long history behind today’s dispute. Since the inception of copyright as a component of statutory law, copyright holders have sought to make copyright as expansive as possible and lessen any obligations that serve public interest as a whole. The Statute of Anne (titled An Act for the Encouragement of Learning…) provided copyright under conditions; as I have written before: “the privilege of the original exclusive right of reproduction came with the requirement that for each book published, nine copies were to be given to various university libraries, printed on nothing less than the best paper.” That requirement was decried, reneged on, and eventually discarded but not before many decades of familiar rhetoric had been unleashed.

When it became vividly evident that the statutory condition of library deposit (some called it the educational deposit) was being ignored, a professor of law protested vehemently. In A Vindication of the Right of the Universities of Great Britain to a copy of every new publication Edward Christian wrote:

When I hear much pity and commiseration expressed for the rights of poor authors, I wish to respect the rights of poor students, a class of men from whom poor authors themselves must derive their origin, and without whose successful labours nothing valuable in literature is ever likely to have existence. … By every honourable author [the deposit] would be paid with alacrity, as a debt of justice and gratitude, for the benefit which he must or might have derived from these common foundations of science.

Christian was not unaware of the objections raised to the requirement of deposit; he continued:

… It is sometimes observed, that besides the loss of the copy…, the author or proprietor will suffer considerably by the diminution in the sale of the work, when the members of the University have an opportunity of perusing it gratuitously. But that seems to be a fallacious and sophistical argument; for if the University thinks it worth purchasing, then the sale of one copy does precisely the same mischief to the author’s interest as the donation of that copy.

Christian’s words bring to mind those who insist that a librarian practicing fair dealing on behalf of students is unacceptable, despite the fact that the law (see Copyright Act, 30.2(1)) has long since allowed such practice. Moreover, our Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that fair dealing is effectively transferable—in 2004, librarians were permitted to act on behalf of their patrons; in 2012, an ISP and teachers could stand in the fair dealing shoes of subscribers and students respectively.

In any event, the early 19th century is an intriguing period of history. Ronan Deazley writes: “When one thinks of notable debates … in nineteenth century Britain one thinks of … the parliamentary wrangles surrounding the Copyright Amendment Act 1842,” but he brings readers’  attention to events related to a proposed 1808 amendment, titled:

Bill for the further encouragement of Learning in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, by securing to the Libraries of the Universities, and other public libraries, copies of all newly-printed books, and books reprinted with additions, and by further securing the copies and copyright of printed Books to the authors of such books, or their assigns, for a time to be limited.

Copyright holders protested; in the decades that followed, the familiar trope of starving authors reappeared. With Romanticism in full bloom, William Wordsworth penned these lines:

… For ‘Books’!” Yes, heartless Ones, or be it proved
That ’tis a fault in Us to have lived and loved
Like others, with like temporal hopes to die
No public harm that Genius from her course
Be turned; and streams of truth dried up, even at their source!

After three hundred years, a change of dialogue would be much appreciated. Which leads me to my second point; such dialogue can exist.

In May of this year, I attended Congress 2017 at Ryerson University, taking the rare opportunity to explore my interest in all things related to books. During one session, a representative from Canadian Publishing made the remark that he did not see himself in the debate about copyright/fair dealing, or authors/readers. That the labour expended by homegrown Canadian presses remains unseen and unaccounted for. As we ran out of official time, he and his colleague stood with me in the hallway so that conversation could continue. To their credit, when I mentioned the millions of dollars that Canadian universities spend on content,** they were surprised, and wishful. If only a fraction of those funds came to them, their situation would be different.

Allied to the challenges of securing income for small presses is the challenge of securing writers. The next day I listened to a publishers’ panel and was struck by one remark in particular: they nurture young talent but when an author “finally writes something with the potential to make money,” that opportunity is given to a larger, weightier press. All publishers present agreed on one thing: that it was essential to sell beyond Canadian borders. The Canadian market is simply not large enough to sustain them. This is, and has always been, the problem.

As I have written before, today’s challenges are as old as Canada itself; 19th century Canadian publishers were shut out of, not only foreign markets, but their own market. Without government support, the publishing sector could not grow. And the support that Canada wished to give, was denied by the political influence of publishers and copyright holders from both the UK and the US.

It was not until the later 20th century, amid the demise of Ryerson Press, that explicit government support emerged for Canadian publishers. (A delightful bonus from Congress 2017 was listening to Clive Powell’s presentation regarding the Ryerson Press archives). That support has continued, but, as noted last year by Kate Edwards (executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers) in The World Needs More Canada, support had remained static for the prior fifteen years. Even so, in that same article, Dan Wells (publisher of Windsor-based Biblioasis) had this to say: “… this really is the golden age of independent publishing in Canada.”

Wells’ enthusiasm aside, it need not mean we are not to try to focus attention on our homegrown publishers and writers. But it is unwise to take that step via copyright and blanket licensing. Efforts to manufacture a market out of legitimate unauthorized uses of copyrighted materials can only backfire. As I pointed out last week, the dual rise of (i) licensing of content directly between publishers and institutions; and (ii) openly licensed educational resources, points to a future where less proprietary information moves unsanctioned through academic corridors. To the extent that Canadian educators rely on educational publishers, that field is dominated by foreign firms. Just as demands for a uniform stamp of copyright in the 19th century did not serve Canadian publishers well, the call for uniformity through blanket licensing will again disproportionately benefit the competitors of our publishers.

For those who thrive on conflict, continuing to demonize educators and librarians as the enemy of writers and publishers is a desirable state of affairs. But as to whether this approach will benefit the writers and publishers in whose name the conflict is waged, is doubtful for the simple reason that copyright does not care about a Canadian writer, or a Canadian publisher. If we wish to target our own publishing sector and our own writers, we need to find another way.

For instance, provincial governments are taking active interest in developing open educational resources. Could not funds be set aside for grants to educational institutions (whether in the K-12 range or post-secondary) for partnerships with Canadian publishers, writers, artists, archivists, geographers, scientists, botanists and historians to develop Made-In-Canada content? Some educational institutions have their own facilities for printing; others are looking at the viability of establishing print-on-demand. A modest printing fee may well be more lucrative to local creators than the small margins available under a mass-market publishing model. Students and Canadian creators could all benefit.

There can be no easy solution to these problems, but conversation is more productive than acrimony. And so, to those two gentlemen, thank you.



The Walrus recently published this missive, “How Universities Manage to Avoid Paying Writers for Their Work,” by Patrick Warner. He writes: “… why should writers, among the lowest-paid skilled workers in Canada—whose average income is less than 50 percent of the median national wage—be asked to subsidize the education system by making early contributions to the public domain?” Warner makes no mention of the millions spent by post-secondary institutions on content; instead he devotes considerable energy to marking librarians as a source of copyright discontent and enablers of unauthorized use: “… librarians had complained for decades that copyright law prevented them from offering better services to their users: desktop delivery of documents and electronic reserves being two services technology could easily allow.” Left unsaid is the prevalence of licensing of library resources; librarians are often operating under campus wide-licenses from content providers, many of whom allow electronic access and distribution.

** For instance, in 2013, then-President Stephen Toope wrote of the $25 million paid by the University of British Columbia alone for content, including $14 million spent directly on books by faculty and students. Last year, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries indicated that their 31 member libraries had collectively spent $293 million for information resources in 2014-2015. If the expenditures of smaller institutions are included, the number will be even higher.

now what?

In Posts on July 1, 2017 at 9:00 pm

The Day is done; candles have been blown out in some quarters, tears continue to be shed in others. 150 years of something–whether it is the lifetime of Canada or a chapter in millennia of a First Nation–has been duly marked/celebrated/decried. Now what?

In terms of copyright, we can expect continued calls for stronger copyright to better support Canadian writers. Ignored will be the detail of copyright deficit–that more control invariably means more Canadian dollars going to non-Canadian entities. Also omitted will be any hint that such calls have been in existence for the entirety of Canadian autonomy with respect to copyright, with no appreciable denting of that deficit to show for it. That copyright alone cannot be the salvation of Canadian culture (assuming that our culture is under threat) will also be absent from discussion.

Perhaps we could set aside copyright for a moment and think about that word: culture. Described by Raymond Williams as one of the most complicated words in the English language, it spans the entirety of our collective lived experiences.

Through the past 150 years, Canada has only too often demonstrated narrow-minded thought. Beginning with an unapologetic objective to rid the country of indigenous people,* followed by the Chinese Head Tax, the Komagata Maru, the internment of Japanese Canadians, the rejection of Jewish refugees, … . The situation for visible minorities improved somewhat in the later 20th century, with racism taking on a slightly more polite tone. (Although, children of colour attending school in the ’70s will likely have evidence to the contrary.) And it is difficult to forget the national indifference to the tragedy of Air India Flight 182 in 1985.

Yet Canada has developed a credible capacity, not merely to mouth the importance of protecting minority rights, but to actively encourage the virtue of diversity. The underlying theme for the last 30 years or so is that we are all in this together and we all do better together. Some pride is warranted; it has been possible to find unity without imposing uniformity. But can this be sustained, or is the best of Canada behind us?

Paula Simons, writing for the Edmonton Journal, reminds us not to rest on our laurels. That systemic racism is still part of our landscape, and extremism is on the rise: “for all our lauded tolerance, this was also the year when six peaceable Canadians, at prayer in a Sainte-Foy neighbourhood mosque, were shot in the back and killed in the midst of their devotions.”

With an eye to building on the effort of our prior angels, to what extent are we aware of our collective history? Is that history within reach of all Canadians? In this regard, copyright cannot be ignored. Two proposals come to  mind; one is already underway, the other I offer as an idea.

1) For years, Amanda Wakaruk (copyright librarian for University of Alberta) has publicized the challenges inherent to maintaining accurate information about Canada as a whole, due to the archaic practice of Crown copyright. In her capacity as a private citizen, she has introduced a petition Fix Crown Copyright:

Decades of stakeholder requests to abolish or at least update the Crown copyright provision in the Copyright Act have been largely ignored. This has resulted in a barrier to the re-use of government publications prepared for and paid for by Canadian taxpayers. For example, the refusal of government departments to allow for the copying of content made freely available on their web sites, and then deleted from those same sites, resulted in the loss of countless digital government works in recent years. (Note that very few government publications continue to be produced in paper.)

Removing copyright protection from government works made available to the public will allow individuals, corporations, and other organizations to make better use of these important resources. It will also allow librarians to continue their role as stewards of government information in a digital world. …

The petition will remain open until 23 September 2017.

2) Volumes of scholarship about Canada are, for the most part, confined to the university community. Painstaking explorations that uncover the past, both its pain and glory, are not easily available to the Canadian reader who wishes to learn more.

For instance, I recently sought two books published by University of Toronto Press: (i) The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson, Prime Minister (1985) by P.B. Waite; and (ii) Essays on the Constitution: Aspects of Canadian law and politics (1977) by Frank R. Scott. Both are rich in their contribution to understanding the past, both could be staple reading for anyone interested in the idea and existence of Canada. But neither can be easily purchased (the odd copy may exist in a few select used-bookstores) and both have limited visibility in university libraries.

We cannot fault any publisher for letting production lapse when there is no market. And yet these are quintessentially Canadian books; written by Canadians, issued by a Canadian press, and intended without embarrassment as expressly for Canadian readers. Which raises the question: when such books are no longer actively produced or peddled for sale, can they not be made widely and freely available via an open license?

A requirement of an academic appointment is to engage in scholarly effort; to that end, scholars enjoy publicly funded salaries and research grants. With respect to publication, university presses are eligible for support from the Canada Book Fund. University libraries then pour more money into the purchase of information resources; data collected for 29 university libraries show aggregate spending in 2014-2015 as $305,046,488 (see page 4 here). Between government provision of public money, and university spending thereof, could some funds be set aside to convert old printed books into ebooks?

This does not require a change to the system of copyright–it requires consent from copyright owners of existing content, and, cooperation from institutions  If consent is given, and if institutions would share the necessary costs of labour and money, more Canadian content could reach more Canadian readers.

Copyright maximalists constantly tell us that Canadian culture is near death–that Canadian themed content will cease to be written unless copyright is strengthened. They neglect to point out how much existing Canadian content cannot be read at all.

* Roberta Jamieson, featured on CBC Ideas for 30 June 2017, pulled no punches in her telling of the past 150 years. And yet, offers much optimism for the road ahead.

“a plea to the academics”

In Posts on June 13, 2017 at 8:08 am

If we want writers to flourish, then it is vital to maintain the spaces of legitimate-unauthorized use provided within the system of copyright.

That was the gist of my remarks for a public event concerning the upcoming review of the Copyright Act, held during Congress 2017. I had one objective in mind: to reach the professoriate. Particularly those individuals who are passionate about literature, books, publishing and Canada. That community is the one that may be best able to cut through the political rhetoric that swirls around the word copyright.  They could offer a well-grounded discussion of what the system of copyright is and how it helps or hinders the telling of stories. And so I titled my presentation as A Plea to the Academics.

The call for papers which prompted my participation asked two questions. The first enquired how might those involved with the enterprises of education and research respond to accusations of widespread pilfering of creative works? The second query asked those same individuals how might they demonstrate the value gained by maintaining a robust limit upon the grant of copyright? My answer was that researchers and educators should do what they do best: research and educate. This was not intended as a witty response; I was quite serious. Beyond a handful of dedicated scholars, the majority of the Canadian professoriate is unaware of the structure of copyright law, its particular history in Canada, and the very real risk Canadians face of being drawn into a strict no-copy-without-payment regime with the ensuing loss to creativity (i.e., see here).

It is likely safe to assert that no government has ever lost votes by declaring allegiance to its writers. Thus, copyright owners, or their representatives, have an easy argument to draw from when lobbying for more restrictive copyright laws; they blithely connect stronger copyright with authorial well-being, claiming that an attendant benefit will eventually flow to the general population. The argument lacks credible evidence, and logic, but given the highly emotional setting of the dialogue, countering the argument requires a deeper understanding of the backstory to literary creation. Limitations upon copyright are critical to building a book industry and to the creation of books themselves. To that end, I drew upon the words and experiences of three writers (Margaret Atwood, Charles Dickens, and Ved Mehta) to illustrate a different perspective about copyright and the creation of literature.

But I have no doubt that literary scholars and book enthusiasts would have more such stories to tell.

My notes, with a few slides embedded, are available through the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English.


In Posts on May 24, 2017 at 5:46 pm

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the Copyright User Rights Access to Justice Symposium hosted by LTEC (Law and Technology) Lab of Windsor Law. The presentations were impressive in their depth and breadth; ensuing discussions illustrated that the intersection of user rights with access to justice is an extensive mine for exploration. Congratulations, and thanks, are due to Pascale Chapdelaine, Erica Lyons, and all the staff who contributed to the makings of a thoroughly enjoyable event.

At the outset, we were reminded that we stood in the realm of the Anishinaabe, the territory of the Three Fires Confederacy of First Nations, comprising the Ojibway, the Odawa, and the Pottawatomie. Such words take on particular significance, convinced as I am that aboriginal legal traditions, particularly those pertaining to land, are instrumental to the underpinnings of the system of copyright. We are accustomed to thinking of the Copyright Act as bijural; arguably, influenced as it is by three modes of law (aboriginal, civil and common), the Act is trijural. This perspective framed my presentation; more details will come another day.

For now, my focus is in connection with a remark made in passing by Ruth Okediji. In the context of discussion about the non-commercial user-generated content exception, Professor Okediji stated what we all know to be true – that this behavior is universal.  But her next words were striking: “Canada had the integrity to acknowledge it.” It was an exalting moment to hear such recognition, to which I may add: Canada should encourage it, as ought any country that values creativity. Creativity does not occur through set rules and methods; creativity operates in its own ecosystem according to an unpredictable dynamism of encounter and engagement, including reimagining and re-creation. Playing with work that has come before is the very foundation of creativity.

My conference junket continues next week at Congress, beginning with a public event concerning the upcoming review of the Copyright Act (jointly hosted by the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English and the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities) on Monday, May 29 at 1:30pm in KHW61. It is to be followed by a retreat to the 19th century via a joint event held by the Bibliographic Society of Canada and the Canadian Association for the Study of Book Culture. I hope to ensure that Sir John Thompson—a man of integrity, who was committed to the rule of law—is not forgotten in our sesquicentennial commemorations.

six factors if necessary

In Posts on February 24, 2017 at 9:58 am

But not necessarily six factors.

Below is some of the content I covered yesterday during a panel discussion Fair Dealing–Where do we go from here?  With the aim of simplifying the fairness analysis, I drew attention to some pre-CCH Canadian case law (see here and here).  My thanks to the University of Alberta for the opportunity to participate in the discussion.

Earlier this week, I mentioned Canada’s progress in developing a mutually respectful system of copyright, one that does more than pay lip-service to creativity. Fair dealing plays its part in this system of limited rights, as is necessary to maintain the goal and structure of copyright set some three hundred years ago. That fair dealing has become part and parcel of the legal landscape is perhaps best exemplified by remarks from a Federal court judge: “I don’t think this case is as profound as you and others made it out to be.”

Fair dealing is here to stay; students and teachers have every reason to make use of it.

However, it would be reasonable to say that there is still a great deal of timidity among educational institutions over actually using fair dealing.

The principal element of a decision of fair dealing is the contextual analysis to determine if a use is fair. This approach was set via CCH Canadian where the Court relied on six factors for analysis: (i) purpose of the dealing; (ii) character of the dealing; (iii) amount of the dealing; (iv) alternative to the work; (v) nature of the work; (vi) effect of the dealing on the work. These factors were included in fair dealing policies developed by national educational bodies and subsequently implemented at institutions across the country.

But therein lies a problem. While it is essential to remember that fairness is embedded in context, we have also to remember that the six factors cited are not sacrosanct. In CCH Canadian, the Supreme Court also emphasized that the framework of exploration must be malleable. That discussion of fair dealing is hailed as a progressive development because it struck down the 20th century tendency to see copyright, or exceptions thereto, in terms of mechanical rules to be applied without consideration of context. By simply adopting new rules, we risk that estimable gain of progressive development.

To be sure, rules carry some value in setting general guidelines for institutions as a whole. When fashioning policies for use of copyrighted works, the 10% / 1 chapter position of the prevailing policies is a reasonable starting point. If more is desired, then discussion with copyright personnel is the next step. Yet the larger goal should be to encourage thought with regard to any decision to copy. Fair dealing is not, and never should be, confined to the perspective of measure.

A challenge to such copyright literacy is the six-factor analysis. Intimating that teachers carry out such an expansive consideration risks evoking horror, even paralysis, in that audience. But that audience is well-positioned to grasp a more tailored analysis.

Fair dealing is not used purely to obtain reference materials; fair dealing also shows itself in the creative effort of developing learning resources. Such resources benefit from the inclusion of quotations, images, charts/tables etc. Inclusion of any one of these items may well be legitimate simply by virtue of being an insubstantial portion of a larger work; yet it is beneficial to engage in a fairness analysis. Particularly, as such cases lend themselves to a two-factor examination that everyone is capable of understanding and executing:

1. What is the purpose of using the copyrighted material?

Mere conventional thinking would tell us that the purpose is education, and education is one of the permissible categories of s.29 Fair Dealing. But a more precise answer pays dividends in terms of risk management. Teachers choosing to use particular materials should be clear (at least to themselves) as to how that content serves an educational objective. The answer need not be couched in pedagogical jargon, it could be as simple as it “illustrates a concept.” This modest exercise of thought sharpens focus on both the objective and the material, and (inadvertently perhaps) places a curb on the amount copied. Without resorting to stipulations of measure, such consideration encourages the teacher to use only what is needed, nothing more.

2. How is the material distributed?

We ought not to forget that teachers stand in the fair dealing shoes of their students. Hence, distribution should be in light of what is necessary to meet the needs of that finite group. Placing content in a secure, password-protected learning platform, or via handouts in class, serves that goal. Whereas posting content to a public website is not as confined in its reach. (I am not ruling out wider distribution such as placing a dissertation in an open-access institutional repository–more on that another day). In any case, if students were then to circulate the carefully curated material, there is no liability to the teacher or institution.

To those who are concerned at the seeming loss of four factors, they have not disappeared.  Rather, they are subsumed by the situational aspects of this type of copying. As noted above, the aspect of amount is implicit to considered thought regarding why a work (or portions thereof) is being copied. The question of alternative resources becomes less germane as the explicit language in Alberta v. Education rules out the implication that schools ought to purchase a copy of every conceivable work for every conceivable student. (And if the work copied is from institution-wide subscription resources, this factor becomes irrelevant.) The nature of the work tends to be published material, eminently suited to fair dealing. As to effect, the Supreme Court has emphasized that such dealings should not be read in the aggregate. And the Copyright Board has explicitly rejected the former dictum of anything worth copying is worth paying for (para 110 here and  para. 217 here).

To some that may sound harsh, but only until one realizes that the Board has not ruled out paying for copying when appropriate. The Board only rejected a century-old proposition which was inspired by the conduct of a rival publisher. The Board, like the Supreme Court, now emphasizes a holistic examination of any dispute.

On a different note; in 2016 I met an American lawyer who was–to put it plainly–in awe of Canada and our development of fair dealing. Three Supreme Court decisions, progressive amendments passed by government, two Copyright Board decisions, and fifteen years of considered dialogue led by legal scholars, practicing lawyers, university counsels and many, many librarians. In part wonderment, part frustration, she asked: “What are you waiting for?


fair dealing week 2017

In Posts on February 19, 2017 at 7:23 pm

Tomorrow marks the start of Fair Dealing Week in Canada. There is much to be proud of with the steady advance in the realm of exceptions, gained not by intemperate action but by deliberative thought on the part of the judiciary, the government, the Copyright Board, and, institutions and individuals across the country. A moment of celebration and pride is warranted.

Yet, significant challenges remain. Educational institutions continue to be a favorite target with copyright owners. Those who take aim at fair dealing lack a cogent argument grounded in either legality or economics, and so must rely on hyperbole. The picture painted is that educational institutions steal from an industry which is on its deathbed, to the detriment of those individuals who carry the very soul of the nation.

In the absence of informed discussion, emotion can masquerade as logical thought. With our sesquicentennial year upon us, the emotion index will likely exceed what hysteria we have already seen. Unfortunately, many Canadians (and their representatives in government) are unaware of the nuance of copyright, that it is a system of limited rights. This post is written with the hope of reaching some of those individuals.

For those who do not yet know what fair dealing means in an educational environment, have a look at Student Life without Fair Dealing. This presentation was created a few years ago by Annie Ludbrook of Ryerson University; it remains the best illustration of how necessary fair dealing is to learning, and takes only a minute or two to view.

And, if interested in a larger story, please see below.

“Millions of times a day copyright material is probably shared in this country.”[1]

That phrase stood out among the miscellany that a Sunday-morning excursion into Twitter had unearthed. Said by a Federal court judge, it was in reference to a dispute over unauthorized uses of material protected by copyright. This dispute (later resolved in favour of fair dealing) is only one of many skirmishes in an ongoing Great Battle in the realm of copyright. Ever since it became apparent that digital technology set on world-wide networks has considerable potential for distribution, copyright holders and copyright users alike have claimed those streams of sharing. To some, sharing represents a threat to the very production of creative material; to others, such sharing is creativity’s salvation.

But the contemporary clash of views is not the first Great Battle fought in the name of copyright. Matthew Arnold, renowned poet and social commentator of 19th century England, bestowed the title on a Royal Commission which probed the very structure of copyright as a grant of monopoly power and openly questioned its usefulness. Eventually, the outcome supported the continuance of copyright as it was designed and has functioned so ever since.

But a critical point has almost been lost to history; the decision was not unanimous. Ten of the fifteen commissioners attached dissenting opinions to the final report, dissatisfaction brewed even among the victors. One could say that the only element of absolute unanimity was the implicit boundary that circumscribed any assertion of copyright: copyright was a means to govern the conduct of players in the commercial book market.

Meaning, copyright was a trade regulation imposed on corporate entities. Yet by virtue of what will long be rued as a poor choice of vocabulary, today the language of copy suggests that copyright may privatise the intellectual and creative activity of individuals.

Copyright falls within a branch of law addressing what has come to be known as intellectual property, a phrase of equally dubious construction. We are told that Thomas Jefferson was the first to associate intellectual creation as property, a word expressly chosen in order to break with the English tradition of declaring such rights as monopolies (a practice of control that functioned to the detriment of the people in England).[2]

Ironically, three centuries later, intellectual property rights are just as capable of being harnessed towards monopolistic behavior. For instance, efforts by literary estates to curtail scholarly work,[3] a steep escalation of textbook costs,[4] and the thirty-year effort it took to reach an international agreement allowing some manner of adaption and distribution of copyrighted materials to aid visually-disabled people,[5] should disabuse anyone of the notion that copyright can do no harm.

A cogent argument for some control over intellectual creations does exist. It is reasonable that writers, artists, musicians, et al, should receive remuneration when their creations are exchanged in a professional marketplace. Many will agree that the likelihood of development of creative effort is heightened when there is assurance of some rights of control after creativity has been exercised. But perpetual furor over copyright eclipses a vital factor: that control is insufficient to bring about creativity.

Creative effort does not occur by the presence of rights alone. Creativity needs knowledge, awareness, skill, diligence, luck, fodder, and something else that lacks capture in a single word; loosely speaking, this indefinable element is a capacity to envision that which others may not. A confluence of all these elements might result in developments in art, music, literature, or science.

In this light, the creative process seems less and less the purview of law, and more and more some manner of alchemy, or worse. According to Voltaire: “One must be possessed of the Devil, to succeed in any of the arts.”[6] Alternatively, one constant theme regarding creative effort is to engage with other creative effort. William Faulkner’s advice: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad …. You’ll absorb it. Then write.”[7] Or this declaration from Margaret Atwood: “The first thing I did when starting this project was to reread the play. Then I read it again. Then I got my hands on all the films of it that I could find, and watched them. Then I read the play again… then I read it again, backwards.”[8]

And yet, law dominates discussions of fostering creative effort. Likely because law is specific, law can be written down, law can be upheld, or, violated and then wielded as an instrument of retribution. Addressing the law meets a political goal—to show that something is being done. Three centuries ago, copyright law was created under the façade of supporting starving authors; that trope reappears as each development in media is cast as a threat to literary or other artistic endeavors. The refrain repeats: Dire consequences will lie ahead for society as a whole, unless something is done.

Today, the repercussions of amending copyright law far exceed the mandate of trade regulation. Technological development has brought us to a point where we live our private lives through copies. Unauthorized use is a vital step to creativity and needs protection.

Fair dealing is a very modest exception to the monopoly of copyright. A fair dealing of copyrighted work must not only fit within prescribed categories of use (education is among them) but must also survive a fairness analysis. The educational community takes its responsibilities seriously; no institution would sanction unrestrained copying as fair dealing. Yet this is the image presented by those who prefer to cast fair dealing as something to fear and something to blame.


[1] Justice Barnes, quoted by Graham C. Gordon, Loonie Politics. 24 September 2016.

[2] The praecursor to copyright were the printing privileges bestowed upon guilds; the most powerful among them holding control over the printing of widely used classes of books such as catechisms, bibles, ABCs, and lawbooks. Philosopher John Locke condemned all monopolies as hoarding money and property to the detriment of the kingdom and was particularly incensed at the system which enabled booksellers to charge high prices for poorly produced books.

[3] A case of note was the unwillingness of James Joyce’s estate to recognize fair use in scholarly work; see Schloss v. Estate of James Joyce.

[4] For instance, “…new textbook prices increased by a total of 82 percent over [2002-2012],” see Students Have Greater Access to Textbook Information, U.S. Government Accountability Office. There does not appear to be comparable data for Canadian students, but as products are generally more expensive to purchase in Canada, it is unlike that the situation would be better on this side of the border.

[5] James Love, “A Treaty for the Blind?Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Information Journal (2006), Vol. 22 Issue 12. See also Meera Nair, “Wonderful news from Marrakesh,” in FairDuty, 6 June 2013,

[6] Quoted in Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1957).

[7] “The Best Writing Tips From William Faulkner,” 25 September 2013, Huffington Post.

[8] Margaret Atwood, 24 September 2016, The Guardian.