Opinion: Canada's copyright 'fair dealing' law is far from fair

The Harper government gave schools and universities permission to copy 20 per cent of the material in my books without paying a cent.

Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages James Moore (right) looks on as Minister of Industry and Minister of State (Agriculture) Christian Paradis speaks about the proposed copyright law tabled in the House of Commons, in Ottawa, Thursday September 29, 2011.

Access Copyright, which acts on behalf of content creators, has said it expects to meet Thursday with Liberal cabinet Ministers François-Philippe Champagne and Steven Guilbeault. I’m concerned, as the ministers should be, about a nasty piece of copyright legislation that has cost me between $10,000 and $25,000 over the last nine years. As a teacher, professor, writer, editor and publisher, I’ve spent countless hours creating books and anthologies. I loved this work and thought these efforts might also provide some income during my retirement. However, in 2012, Stephen Harper’s government passed the Copyright Modernization Act (Bill C-11), which makes it legal for the education sector to photocopy and use 20 per cent of an author’s book for free, labelling this “fair dealing.”

To me, this legislation smacks not only of a powerful disrespect for the arts, but also for the copyright law that had been in place for many decades to protect an author’s right to fair compensation. Creative play onstage, on-page or off, is not a trivial thing, but a life-sustaining activity. Greek philosopher Plato refused poets a place in his proposed Republic because they created rhythms he believed threatened the status quo. That assessment was unfair, but at least he did not pass legislation to back it up.

What’s fair about so-called “fair dealing?” The school janitor gets paid, teachers and principal get paid, coaches gets paid, so, too, do school board officials. Even ministers of Culture, Education and Heritage get paid, but obviously far too much if they don’t realize there’s a group that’s shockingly absent from this list: yes, the writers, whose works form such a significant part of the educational curriculum. My intellectual property and theirs is being stolen. Harper gave schools and universities permission to copy 20 per cent of the material in my books without paying a cent. While I used to earn a few thousand dollars a year from royalties and photocopying, now I’m lucky if they bring me a few hundred dollars.

York University was recently taken to court for unfair copying; it lost. But the Trudeau government has taken no action and the legal sharks who work for school boards, departments of education and universities are circling to make sure it doesn’t. It’s like free trade, free for whom? Not for the small-scale Canadian manufacturers that went bankrupt, and the employees who lost jobs when everything moved south to Alabama and Mexico, then Asia, in pursuit of the cheapest labour. Simon Reisman came back from the original Canada-U.S. free trade talks suggesting that we’d snookered the Americans. He clearly was not aware of the witty comment often attributed to Stephen Leacock: “Whenever an American tells you you‘ve driven a hard bargain, you know he’s taken you to the cleaners.” If Leacock were alive now, he’d be the first to say: “Whenever a government uses the word fair, you can expect the opposite.”

Many of us have worked hard for decades to tell Canada’s stories, creating a literature to be proud of, a splendid “tribe” that includes Michael Ondaatje, Michel Tremblay, Ann Hébert, Tomson Highway, Gabrielle Roy, Leonard Cohen, Timothy Findlay, Émile Martel and, of course, our very own Nobel Laureate, Alice Munro. If the PM and his ministers are listening, I hope they’ll take a few minutes to consider this comment by John Ruskin: “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art … but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.” I’m just one of many who have provided words and art for the ongoing story that is Canada. Now it’s time for the government and the courts to provide the necessary deed: to remove the unfair legislation that denigrates the arts and makes its theft legal.

Gary Geddes has written and edited more than 50 books, including Medicine Unbundled. He taught creative writing at Concordia University for many years.

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