Friday, April 26, 2013

Why Information Cannot Be Free, Part II

Earlier this month  an article appeared in the main section of the National Post about Access Copyright's fight for Canadian writers. The organization is fighting on our behalf to maintain our compensation for our work that is photocopied by institutions such as schools and library.

The letters in response to the original article were full of vitriol. They made writers out to be blood-sucking fiends who scam students with our outrageous demands to be paid for our work. But what is the alternative? Government handouts? Then we'd be parasites draining the government teat. So we can't charge for our services, but we can't get government support either. Damned if we do, damned if we don't.

It's a lovely utopian idea, this "information should be free" trope. In an ideal world, it would be. So should health care. And public transit. And gardening services. What about food? Yeah, I'd like that to be free too, especially caviar and truffles.

But no one really expects these goods and services gratis, do they? Yet writers' work - that should be free for the taking. We should write as a public service. From the goodness of our hearts.

I'm not quite clear on why writers come in for such misunderstanding and ire. Do people think writing isn't a "real job?" My mother-in-law might think so, because I drink a lot of coffee in my pajamas. But I work 90 hours a week, with no guaranteed income - no salary, no pension, no benefits. Words are not rain that fall from the sky. They take effort to produce, and time, and expertise. Yes - expertise.

Maybe our critics believe writing is something that anyone who can clutch a pencil can do. Yeah! Maybe that's it! They resent that we have actually sat down and done something so "easy" they haven't bothered to get around to that novel yet themselves. Or they don't recognize their own 'work,' ahem, needs a major edit and rewrite.

Or is it fear? That writers are intellectual and creative elites that wield magic they don't understand? I confess: I kind of like that idea, if not the fallout from it.

Writers are not corporate entities with huge coffers. We are not governments with enormous powers. We are not the 1% - most of us aren't, anyway. We are working stiffs, trying to get by just like retail clerks, machinists, and teachers.

The left should support us because we are workers exploited by big corporations. Shall we talk about the Big Six in publishing for a moment?

The right should support us because we are entrepeneurs who create jobs and bring wealth into our country. I've been self-employed for more than 20-odd years, have hired tons of people, and paid taxes the whole way through. Isn't this a good thing for Canada?

Clearly, society values our work. If it didn't, why would professors want to photocopy our words? Wouldn't they just write their own teaching materials?  Good content does find an audience. It should follow, then, that we are able to charge for it, just like video game producers do. Just like you, gentle reader, probably charge for your own contributive labour.

I've attached my second letter to the Post below. It was in reply to another letter, the gist of which will be self-evident.

Please write  to to keep this story alive and get our plight back into the main pages. And consider contacting other media outlets as well. We need to tell our side of the story, even if that means stopping work for a moment - paying work - to do so.

---Helaine, blogging for free

"In his letter of April 25, James Homuth says, "for every author who insists they need an Access Copyright equivalent to get paid, there are at least two that can do without it." Can he please provide his data for this statistic?

He also says, "Make the content worthwhile, and you'll get paid." I'd like to see his business plan for this too. How, exactly, does Homuth think that magic happens? E-books on average pay far less than print. Magazine article revenue has stagnated for 15 years; rates for on-line articles are pitiful or nonexistent. Blogging? Not profitable, and problematical if you don't want weight-loss ads beside your posts. Self-publishing? The infamous "long tail" only works if you live as long as Methuselah - that's "if-come," not income.

The publishing business is changing at an unprecedented rate. True, writers do need to figure out new ways to make a living from our words. But "build it and they will come" doesn't work for books any more than it does for baseball parks. I'd be happy to sit down with Mr. Homuth and your own Post columnists to provide a clearer picture of how self-employed writers actually put bread on the table."

1 comment:

  1. Terrific post, Helaine. I'd like to see the bloke who said "information should be free" show up at his job each morning to earn absolutely no money. We don't ask police officers to fight crime for free. We don't ask teachers to teach for free (just next to nothing). Why should writers be any different? No money, no food . . . no life! And believe me, dead writers don't write much. You should see the paltry wordcount I'm up to now. And I'm still living. On Ramen. ;-)


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