QWF Writes: Copyright, What’s the Big Deal?

This essay is excerpted from QWF Writes.

By Julie Barlow

The Federal government is in the process of revising the Copyright Act. If you don’t think that matters to writers, think again.

I’m always surprised to see blank stares on writers’ faces when I launch into a speech about copyright. Some of them aren’t clear why copyright really matters. Others aren’t sure what copyright even is. Fair enough—it’s not the sexiest topic in the writing world. But even if you don’t notice it, it’s fundamental to our business.

Here’s why. I am a non-fiction author of six books and a magazine writer. To earn my living I sell the right to use my work, either to publishers who pay me advances and royalties or to magazines who pay me fees to publish my articles. For most of my twenty-five-year career, this revenue has constituted most of my income.

Simply put, copyright law is what makes it possible for me to get paid for my work. The Oxford dictionary defines copyright as: “The exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.” That’s me—the originator. The Copyright Act is what legally makes my work mine as soon as I create it, and mine to sell.

It sounds solid in principle, and I wish it was. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to enforce my copyright and get paid for it. So I jumped at the opportunity to attend a hearing hosted by the federal government’s Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, held May 8 in downtown Montreal.

First, let me explain why it’s getting harder to make money from copyright. The reason, in a nutshell, is the Internet and digitization. By making it easier to “publish” and “distribute” creative work, the Internet has made many, many consumers of culture think they should get what’s online for free. The ripple effect in the publishing industry has led to dramatically less revenue for publishers, magazines, and of course writers.

Magazine revenues fell when advertisers turned to online outlets. So magazines are trying to increase their profits by demanding (and the word is not too strong) more copyright from writers, but for the same fee. Whereas the standard when I started publishing in 1995 was to sell first publication rights (giving the magazine the right to publish it once), I now have to sign contracts in which I hand over the right to resell my articles in any form, in any language, anywhere on the planet, sometimes for periods longer than the rest of my life. I used to resell my pieces, sometimes up to five times. Now that’s impossible. Some magazines have even demanded I give them “moral rights” to my work, which means they can alter my work any way they want without my permission – or even take my name off it (I don’t work for those ones).

The case in book publishing is a little harder to explain. The industry as a whole is suffering from the forces of technology and book advances to authors are falling. When I Google my own work, I discover so many sites offering free (i.e., illegal) PDFs of my books that I can’t keep track of them anymore. And neither can my publisher.

In 2012, the Conservative government recognized that the Internet and digital economy were changing the dynamics of publishing, so it set out to revise the Copyright Act, originally passed in 1921, to take digital realities into account. But the resulting revisions made it harder for both writers and publishers to earn money. The Act already stipulated situations when consumers don’t have to pay creators. For example, “fair dealing” allows you to share one of my articles with a friend for personal consumption without infringing my copyright. The 2012 revisions broadened fair dealing to include situations like “education.” The problem was, the revised Copyright Act didn’t stipulate how much of the work could be used without infringement. The result? Universities and schools across Canada have been refusing to pay fees for copies of my articles or excerpts from my books. Since 2013, the revenue that Access Copyright collects from universities, schools, and other institutions to distribute to writers has declined by 80 percent.

As a writer, what do I want the government do to about this?

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