Meera Nair

Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

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.

Footnotes:

[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.

“history begins with geology”

In Posts on September 20, 2016 at 7:21 pm

Those were Margaret Atwood’s words as she gave the 2016 CLC Kreisel Lecture at the Winspear Centre in April of this year. Broadcast this past Friday via CBC’s radio program Ideas, the lecture—in content, form, and delivery—exemplifies, yet again, why Ms. Atwood is both a national and international treasure. If contemporary politics did intrude into her account of some of the events which shaped Canada’s literary landscape, I have to reach for every shred of temerity in my possession to point it out. But it needs to be done.

When explaining the origins of The Writers’ Union of Canada, Ms. Atwood said:

[there was] no-one to represent their interests, the interests of writers, as opposed to the interests of publishers, readers and libraries. The latter three felt in their hearts that simply being read was honour enough for a writer, no money need be expected. The writers on the other hand took the quaint position that what they did was work and they ought to be remunerated by those making use of it. Plus ça change. Those taking the view that writers’ work is like air, to be had for breathing, now include many internet pundits, some former members of our recently departed government, and a great many universities – those bastions of fair dealing.

Ms. Atwood paused, and some nervously–charged laughter came forth from the audience. The Kriesel Lecture takes place under the auspices of the Canadian Literature Centre, established at the University of Alberta in 2006; some (perhaps many) of those in attendance were likely to be fair dealing practitioners.

Ms. Atwood is, of course, entitled to hold and express any opinion she chooses. But the strength of her reputation and influence requires that some clarification follows where it is needed. Listeners present at the Winspear Centre that evening, or receiving Friday’s broadcast, or those who might yet encounter the Ideas website, may come away with the impression that fair dealing is a morally and legally reprehensible ruse that enables universities to deny remuneration to copyright owners with impunity. The truth is far more prosaic, as truth tends to be. From the days of its codification into law in 1710, copyright has never been a grant of absolute control; it is a system of limited rights. Fair dealing is one such limit; nothing more, nothing less.

The limits upon copyright ensure that creativity, innovation, and civil society may flourish, an objective which also happens to be the raison d’etre of universities. Universities handle fair dealing with care and pay fulsomely for the resources they consume. Generally speaking, limits are the mode of entry to a space where one might hope to emulate achievements of the past. All fair dealing can do is maintain the potential for a small realm of unauthorized use, legitimate under the law, where independent expression of thought may be cultivated. No doubt, some would prefer to see copyright function in absolute form, to the exclusive benefit of current copyright owners. Be that as it may, wishing does not make it so. The system of copyright must also nurture an author yet to come.

What I prefer to reflect on, to savour, is Ms. Atwood’s beautiful presentation of some of the people who contributed to the development of Canadian literature, and their efforts to build audiences and infrastructure for reception and publication of their work. The presentation itself was titled, The Burgess Shale: The Canadian Writing Landscape of the 1960s. Ms. Atwood explained that burgess shale is a particular geological formation found in Western Canada and that “history begins with geology. Geology determines what you can grow and extract, where you can build houses and so forth.”

Ms. Atwood detailed events of the 1960s and 1970s which created an environment conducive to Canadian letters. To obvious audience delight, she began with her own life story. The skills needed for the 1960s were honed in the 1950s, a decade Ms. Atwood described as “robust amateurism—acting one moment, painting sets the next.” The capacity to multi-task served that generation well, “when it was time for a bunch of kids who didn’t know what they were doing to start new publishing companies in Canada which we did in the 1960s.” Due to demographics (the Depression and WWII had taken its toll on birth rates), that generation’s services were in need: “… we stepped into a relative emptiness; we sought to fill it. We didn’t see why not.” Needs that were met creatively to say the least (the stories about the All-Star Eclectic Typewriter Revue and the Pornography Project are priceless; I will say no more than to recommend you listen for yourselves.)

But the limitations of an hour could not allow Ms. Atwood to convey a deeper geological survey of events prior to the 1940s. She remarked that Canadian literature had no presence in her early life; while an occasional Canadian creation might have appeared among the school-imposed diet of Hardy, Shakespeare, Eliot and Keats, “we weren’t taught Canadian literature as a subject in school.” A key difficulty for a Canadian author was the lack of literary infrastructure, a viciously circular problem. Canadian writers needed readers; without distribution, readers could not be had, and, without readers, distribution could not be entertained. But as to how this situation came about, that bedrock had solidified a century earlier.

The root cause was Canada’s inability to develop its own publishing industry in the 19th century. Caught between British Imperialism and American capitalism, Canadian publishers were prohibited from reprinting the bestsellers of the day, meaning those of prominent English authors, while American competitors were free to reprint those same works and capture the Canadian market. Canadian governments, of both Colonial and Dominion stature, laboured for years to develop an equitable copyright arrangement that would provide local publishing firms the option to supply their own markets and build their own capacity, by reprinting British works with permission and provision of royalties. The logic of the arrangement was consistently set aside by the British Crown, through invocation of the sanctity of copyright and the imperative of Empire. This, despite the fact that the copyright demanded of Canada did not serve Canadian writers. British copyright was to be respected in Canada, but Canadian writers, unless published in Britain, were not afforded any such protection.

British intransigence was due, not merely to slavish attention to the word “copy.” What Britain longed for was a reciprocal copyright arrangement with the United States, and Canada was the bargaining chip. Eventually reciprocity did come, but strictly on American terms: publication must use plates set in the United States, and occur prior to, or concurrent with, publication elsewhere. (Notably, the proposed Canadian offer was far more generous to the British; the proposal allowed delayed publication in Canada via imported plates.) Added to these conditions that ensured continued prosperity to American reprinters, the United States sought assurances from Britain that Canada would not interfere in American distribution in Canada.

Details of this period of time are covered in my work, “The Copyright Act of 1889—A Canadian Declaration of Independence, Canadian Historical Review (2009). For a complete monograph on the events of this time, Eli Maclaren’s work, Dominion and Agency – The Structuring of the Canadian Book Trade, 1867-1918 (2011) is stunning. Painstakingly researched, he confirms that the manner in which copyright law was applied to Canada diminished any ambition to build or support independent publishers of original Canadian material.

Even after Canada achieved some measure of copyright autonomy through amendments in 1900—when Canadian publishers could finally reproduce foreign work in conformity with the copyright owner’s wishes—the benefits of the Act principally accrued to established American publishers via branch-plant operations in Canada. Maclaren describes the dual-objectives of Macmillan Company of Canada as “[to] distribute the trade books of the London and New York houses to the Canadian market and publish textbooks for Canadian schools (p.123).” The omission of original publishing was not an oversight, original publishing was strictly frowned upon. When Frank Wise, president of the Canadian operation, requested that some manner of capital be kept available for publication of promising works, the head office made its displeasure quite clear:

… we should be more than a little surprised and displeased if you embarked upon any publishing venture of importance without consulting us. … The only kind of publishing which ought to originate in Canada is the production of school books authorized by one or the Provincial governments (p.124).

It was against this legacy that Ms. Atwood and her peers laboured. That they are to be congratulated is more than evident. But the congratulations should not eclipse what we know now—the fact that Canadian literature began even before Canada, exists during Canada and may safely be expected to endure in any Canada to come. First Nations’ culture has relied on story-telling since time immemorial, early colonists’ writings left a mark we feel even today (Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Trail come to mind) and even when fleeing Canada in search of markets, Canadian literature took shape under the themes of regionalism, as Nick Mount expertly uncovers in When Canadian Literature Moved to New York (2005). Mount does not valorize the writings of all Canadian expats, but lauds the importance of the Canadian community of writers, editors, and publishers that formed in New York to the advantage of Canadian writing.

It is the aspect of community that permeated Ms. Atwood’s recollections and was present in another address given earlier this year. As a keynote speaker at the Jaipur Literary Festival she invoked the theme of community on both global and individual scale. And she reminded listeners of the most intrinsic element of the community that underwrites literary effort:

Here we all are to celebrate books and authors and writing and yes, reading. Writers and readers are joined at the hip. Every act of writing presupposes a reader, even if it is your own secret journal and the future reader is you… Platforms may be changing but thanks to the Internet, reading has become more possible for more people than at any other time in history. … There is a lot more access to literacy than there used to be. …

With thanks to Margaret Atwood, and a great many universities. Those bastions of fair dealing.

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.