Dear Mr. Boissonnault:
I write in connection to remarks you made on November 22, during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage (beginning at 11:49 here). There appears to be a misunderstanding on matters relating to legitimate, unauthorized copying of copyright-protected materials. As this misunderstanding could be widespread, a few words publicly offered may alleviate such anxiety.
You expressed concern that Canadian literature is in peril, and you attributed this to unauthorized use of such literature in universities. That some publishers and writers are encountering difficulties is not in question, but the details are much more complex than was discussed. Today’s challenges stem from an accumulation of events preceding the 2012 amendment of the Copyright Act.
Nevertheless, CanLit is here to stay. On this topic, the work of Nick Mount (Professor, Department of English, University of Toronto) is invaluable, as he is respected on both sides of this debate. In Arrival: The Story of CanLit (2017), Mount details CanLit’s birth, midwifed as it was by profuse government spending during the booming post-WWII economy. As to CanLit’s trajectory: “Canada is producing many more writers and many more books than ever before … there has never been a better time to be a Canadian reader.”
History informs us that reading brings forth writing.
Returning to your remarks, you spoke highly of your studies at Oxford. You might be interested to know that Oxford is mentioned by name in the very first copyright statute: the Statute of Anne (1710). A condition for receiving copyright was that the libraries of Oxford, Cambridge, and other similar institutions, should receive a complimentary copy of the protected book, printed “upon the best paper,” apparently to survive the handling by many grubby hands. Since then, copyright law has undergone numerous changes, but the principle remains: certain measures of unauthorized use are legitimate as they serve larger social goals.
Despite this, universities are increasingly paying for all uses, through licenses with publishers. A multitude of briefs have been submitted to the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology; expenditures are given in detail and speak to the rising trend of relying more on institution-wide licenses for journals and books. Also, Michael Geist (Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, University of Ottawa) has just published a series on his blog which addresses this topic; for instance, see here.
If I may, there is one aspect of your remarks that I find troubling; you suggested sitting down with student leaders to ensure Canadian writers have sufficient funding. The implication is that students are responsible for the challenges endured by some Canadian writers. Nothing could be further from the truth. When students independently engage in unauthorized copying towards completion of their homework, projects, presentations etc.—that is, when they incorporate bits and pieces of text, imagery, multi-media—such copying falls within fair dealing (the principal exception within the Copyright Act, which supports learning). When guided by their teachers, content circulated likely fell within fair dealing, or, as Geist illustrates, was already paid for through an institutional license.
Moreover, a blanket fee, charged to all students, ignores the reality that many disciplines do not engage with Canadian literature, or literature of any kind. To levy such a fee on all students is, at best, inappropriate. At worst, it is unconscionable.
We are leaving our next generations with some intractable problems including climate change, ballooning healthcare costs, the need to develop new industries, and the desperate need to diversify our markets. Fortunately, there are many bright, hardworking, dedicated students, overcoming their ever present hardships, rising to meet these challenges. But even so, the political solution to a shortfall in income among writers should not be a transfer of funds from the group that is even more impoverished.
Meera Nair, Ph.D.
Constituent and Parent
This article was first published on Fair Duty on November 27, 2018.