Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why Information Should Not Be - Cannot Be - Free

The National Post printed an article early this week about the ongoing battle regarding copyright and what constitutes 'fair usage" in Canada. Universities, such as York, no longer feel they need to pay writers for work used for "educational purposes." I'm wondering if  Michael Geist, the law professor at the University of Ottawa quoted in the article, would like to donate his teaching time since it's also for "educational purposes?"

This (only partly) facetious comment brings us to the crux of the matter.

Access Copyright is a collective of publishers and writers (and yes, I am an affiliate) - real people, not Borg or ants or government functionaries. The organization  manages licensing for reproduction rights to our work, and provides an important source of revenue for us. But Access Copyright has been forced into a corner. We don't want to sue universities. We love universities, and elementary schools, and libraries - all the public institutions that we rely on to keep us all educated.

But we writers simply can't afford to create work that we will not be paid for. Nor should we be asked to do so. If Professor "Information Must Be Free" won't pay for the use of our work, we will not make it available to him or anyone else.

This is already the sad case in Canada. Our children's publishing industry, which is vibrant and productive and brings tons of money into our economy, is threatened not only by the digital revolution and globalization, but by people who don't understand that writers are not public servants. We are entrepeneurs. We only make money when our books and articles are SOLD. And then, we earn only a fraction of the cover price of a book as royalties.

Schools and libraries are a big part of our business, especially for those of us who write mainly for children. Access Copyright and its licensing arrangements were set up to correct the imbalance that happens when single books are purchased by institutions who then photocopy them for entire classrooms, year after year. Licensing fees recognize the inherent value of our work, and the fact that reproduction technology robs us of legitimate income. 

But what happens if institutions decide not  to pay us for fair use of our materials? Then that market effectively evaporates - poof!

When a market disappears, so does the rationale for producing goods and services for it. Would Gilette produce razors for hairless people? No. Would coffee shops exist if no one liked caffeine? No. So how many Canadian writers and publishers do you think will produce books for Canadian schools and libraries if we can't get paid for them?

How about a big fat zero?

That's already what's happening. There's been a "chill" on Canadian subjects for kids books for the last few years as uncertainty about revenue simmers.

In the meantime, writers like me start focusing on topics we can sell internationally, where we can sell both more print and digital copies of our works. This may one day to turn out to be a boon for me - perhaps I'll wind up selling even more books overall. But it won't be so hot for Canadians, especially Canadian school kids, parents and teachers. What books will students learn Canadian history from? What sources will tell them about great Canadians? What stories will they see themselves reflected in?

None. If Access Copyright loses its legal and moral rights to collect money for my works from users, I'll be writing books set in "Chicago," not Toronto. And writing biographies of American heroes, American history, American scientific advances.

So to those who think this issue is a cash grab by a faceless corporate or government entity, think again. You're taking money from educators whose role is just as important as the teacher who uses our books, articles, etc. in the classroom. Most of us aren't rich. Taking away our livelihood does not help taxpayers, it justs shifts the expense to the welfare rolls, - a less fair, less efficient, and certainly less intelligent model than paying us for our work is.

To read the article in the Post, click here. You'll see my comment there too (a slight variation of the letter that appeared in the print edition of the Post this morning).

Please put your own comments on the Post site so our voices are heard!

1 comment:

  1. Such a well written post, Helaine. How insane is the expectation that I work for free?


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