Meera Nair

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.

 

Notes:

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.

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