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From the Periodical Writers Association of Canada

Copyright/Copyleft?

By Guenther Krueger

 

Copyright law, like what exactly goes into sausages, is one of those things we don't really want to know too much about. It's probably boring, has little to do with me, and in the end, isn't it just corporations getting more money than they deserve? Answer: yes, no, sometimes. It's always difficult to jump into the minefield of who owns what, who should pay for reproduction rights, and just exactly how does the law interpret these things anyway?

Like many things in 2004, from marriage to spam to global warming, the situation regarding copyright is in flux. As photocopying is replaced by scanning, and digital is becoming the norm, who is free to do what is a murky business. The Canadian Copyright Act , blueprint for all these activities, is in the process of being revised, but the law is one thing, social forces another. And rather than give you a comprehensive overview of the law (for that, I highly recommend the Online Copyright Law Course provided by Access Copyright) I'll explain a bit about the social forces that are polarizing debate on the issues.

What do you believe about copyright? Is it an inherent right in which creators can legally protect their hard-earned and often underpaid efforts? Or is it an erosion of democracy and a drain on culture where every time you want to use something-anything-created, you must first ask permission and then pay for it? These are not simple questions. Courts wrestle with them just as you might. It's confusing to think that travel writers submitting a piece to a national newspaper are paid a pittance only to see their work go on-line and read in Baku and Mombasa, while Time Warner Inc. and Bertelsmann discuss mergers and deals that stagger the imagination. Who is getting what? Is it deserved?

It's enough to make you throw up your hands and leave it to the federal government. That would be nice, but they're looking for feedback too. As a board member of Access Copyright, The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency, a freelance writer, and a creator myself, I know where I stand. I want copyright protection for my work, I want Access Copyright to collect money on my behalf, and I'd like to be paid for the secondary use of my work, yes every time. But of course that's not a universally shared belief.

Copyright is part of a larger body of law dealing with intellectual property. In an increasingly global environment, interpretations are no longer purely domestic, but increasingly international. As technology changes, so do contexts. So we now have to define a work and an author and increasingly we must determine what is "public" and how much protection to afford, both here and throughout the world in an on-line environment.

As the world goes digital, a number of problems are emerging that will be included in upcoming legislation. These include the question of whether the Act should be amended to give rights holders an exclusive right to make their copyright material available on-line on an on demand basis; whether the Act should be amended to prohibit tampering with rights management information that is normally used to identify works; whether sanctions should be provided for those who circumvent technological protection measures; and finally, whether Internet Service Providers (ISP's) should be liable for copyright violations.

Creators like myself have a visceral feeling when we see our work copied illegally, mis-used out of context, or even plagiarized. We don't like it and we seek retribution. But educators and many business people have quite a different world view. The so-called Copy Left movement thinks that the public domain where works are freely available is an important part of cultural activity. Many educators in Canada believe that works should be available to all students to use as they wish. Some even argue that all creations are just recycled ideas, since there is really nothing new under the sun.

While the arguments continue, there are some things you can do. First of all, think about where you stand. Then if you're not sure, read a bit. Familiarize yourself with the work of Access Copyright or Copibec. Take the on-line course. Access Copyright not only collects money and distributes it back to creators and publishers, but it also takes a strong stand on all things copyright, whether it's influencing legislators or closing down illegal copyshops. Of course, if you are firmly planted in the Copy Left camp, you might not agree with everything that this non-profit organization undertakes. But most people in that group who dismiss copyright initiatives and licensing are usually not informed. They have vague ideas about who gets what and reductionist theories that are overly simplistic. I think the more you understand, the more you will agree that a balanced approach is possible.

Copyright is about equity and fairness. But it's also about how we feel about culture in Canada. If we underpay writers initially and then add insult to injury by taking their work and distributing it in lucrative databases, can we expect to read top-quality work and have a lively and articulate exchange of ideas in print? Of course not.

In the end, it's not really about whether business is hampered with expensive and cumbersome rules and regulations or whether an individual writer is paid a few pennies every time something is copied. It's about supporting those organizations that are working hard to balance everyone's needs and interests. Access Copyright, like our democratic system itself, is far from perfect, sometimes quite messy and rancorous. But it's a useful structure, an organization where all voices are heard. Like copyright itself, it's a work in process.

Guenther Krueger is a member of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada and also a member of the Board of Directors for Access Copyright.

For more information about the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, please see their listing in this issue of Sources.

 

 




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