Meera Nair

how Canadian education really hurts creators

In Posts on October 16, 2017 at 8:12 pm

Last week, this tweet made the rounds:

The article referenced insists, yet again, that Canada’s 2012 copyright amendments are the reason for declining fortunes among Canadian publishers and creators.

Such a lopsided assessment of Canada and copyright is nothing new. While it is important that members of the education community continue to press Members of Parliament to engage in a comprehensive exploration of this matter, it is as important to turn our gaze inwards and redress the real failure of Canadian education with respect to nurturing creators and creative activity.

The creators I speak of are not those who belong to any union or collective society; most of these creators are still under-age.

Two weeks ago, a mother said to me, “My daughter is terrified of using anything off the Internet.” The daughter is of middle-school-age, and the source of that terror: dire edicts driven in at school. Thou shalt not steal from the internet for the purpose of schoolwork.

Judicial pronouncements notwithstanding, this is not an isolated misconception.

If generations of Canadian students are instilled with the view that education and creativity are contingent on permission from others; that every scrap of content (even when employed for something as innocuous as homework) must be paid for, Canada’s future looks bleak.

The irony of the current situation is that too many Canadian creators are deemed to have been ruined by virtue of our inclusion of “education” into fair dealing, while the fact is that too many Canadian educators are unaware of fair dealing to begin with. Fair dealing would certainly protect a student who wants to use a published picture, a video-clip, or a quotation of text, towards fulfilling an assignment, regardless of the provenance of that content.

Moreover, in addition to fair dealing, the Copyright Act offers many avenues by which a student’s copying in aid of learning finds legitimacy. But are educators aware of these measures?

For instance, are they aware of the importance of S29.21? Hailed by Ruth Okediji as a mark of integrity by Canada, that we as a nation support the type of copying that is the very foundation of creative effort, S29.21 is quite capable of also sheltering a school project. Northrop Frye’s immortal words bear repetition; poetry can only be made out of other poems…

Are Canadian educators aware of the very structure and language of the grant of copyright? S3.1 clearly indicates taking an insubstantial amount of work would not raise a question of infringement.

Continuing along the lines of first principles, do Canadian educators understand the existence of the public domain? That not every artifact (whether in print or digital) is protected by copyright. Facts and ideas are never protected material; copyright is only gained by creation of original expression. A grant of copyright will expire; from that time forward, anyone may use the creation for any purpose. And the exercise of a statutory exception renders protected-material, in that instant, as public domain.

Returning to the situation at hand, what about the long-sought-after Internet exception S30.04? Its language is clumsy, but given that Canadian education fought for this exception, to see it lying by the wayside is frustrating. Granted, the exception is framed in the language of “institution,” but it is only logical that a student attending an institution could rely on the same protection. Given the forceful language surrounding plagiarism in all educational institutions, it is safe to say that the attribution requirement will be met. (Further conditions limit the exception to some degree, but in the context of a student working on an assignment, those conditions will likely also be met.)

But, for simplicity, fair dealing is all that needs be said about an individual student engaged in learning. S.29 states: “Fair dealing for the purpose of research, private study, education, parody or satire, does not infringe copyright.” There are no fixed conditions; multiple Supreme Court decisions emphasize the contextual nature of fair dealing and provide guidance on determining fairness. The typical uses put forward by students (for a picture here, a quotation there) would easily stand up under such an analysis.

Children, teenagers and post-secondary students should not have to take on the task of learning all about copyright before they can comfortably do their homework. That responsibility falls squarely on Canadian educators. While it is undoubtedly easier to simply adopt a no-copying regime, it will not place Canada on any strong footing in a global economy where success is determined by a country’s capacity to think broadly, to be creative, and to develop knowledge-based industries.

Ideally, the word copyright would never need to be uttered to one under the age of 21. But as life is less than ideal, the best we can do for students is to reassure them that their constructive use of broad shoulders of the past to stand on, is not unlawful.

Students today are confronting a world not of their making, but are being handed the responsibility to fix it. To be able to rise to this demand, they need to engage fulsomely with the resources around them to further their creative aspirations, to cultivate their capacity to see something that others cannot, and to dream beyond the constraints of contemporary problems. This cannot happen if copyright angst is the manner in which students choose how to learn.

  1. I agree with almost everything you wrote here and in your educational context all of it, but I just have to point out that when you go too broad with “Ideally, the word copyright would never need to be uttered to one under the age of 21” you forget that young people are technological capable of violating copyright in the entertainment sector and they do need to understand copyright in the context of illegally copying movies, video games, etc.

  2. Thank you. And yes, my coming-of-age boundary was written with only the educational/creative context in mind.

  3. […] the name of authors, lobbyists against fair dealing antagonize and vilify educators — but many educators are authors […]

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