Copy This – Our work is not free

Copy This – Our work is not free

Ruth E. Walker

At a recent panel discussion at The Writers’ Community of Durham Region, an inevitable topic came up: money. A question from the floor about payment for work triggered an emphatic response that writers, like all other artists, need to remember to ask for—and expect—payment for our work.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

But not unreasonably, we also need to recognize that income for writers comes from a range of activities, not just putting words to the page. For me, that includes designing and delivering practical writing workshops, and providing a range of coaching and editing services for other writers.

Write for money?

Few authors can live exclusively off our royalties from book sales and big money movie rights. Frankly, if people wrote just for the money, I suspect there’d be many empty spaces on bookshelves. But again, that’s the reality for most artists. It’s a passion that drives us. A dream of creation. A love for the rush of putting the best possible words in the best possible order. A compelling desire to create a connection with readers.

Whatever it is that puts our butts in the chair and fingers on the keyboard, it’s also why some of us don’t stand up and demand reasonable compensation for our work.

(Un)fair deals

In 2012, the Copyright Modernization Act, Bill C-11, created a new set of exceptions for “fair dealing” for “educational purposes.” The Writers’ Union of Canada published an article by lawyer Jeananne Kathol Kirwin in Write magazine that explores those exceptions and the impacts.

Our posts from 2018 and 2019 offer some general background on the legal fight to restore compensation for writers and the negative effect those new exceptions set in motion.

In short, writers’ incomes dropped significantly from an already subsistence-level reality. And it became open season for institutions to copy Canadian writers’ work for free.

Image by Tasy Hong from Pixabay

On December 6, the Copyright Board of Canada issued a ruling that reinstates per-student fees for colleges and universities. It’s an amazing development and it changes everything.

As Access Copyright‘s President and CEO, Roanie Levy said: “The Copyright Board decision serves as the foundation for renewal of the symbiotic relationship that exists between creators and education after almost a decade of uncertainty. Access Copyright looks forward to working with our partners in education to ensure that students continue to have easy and affordable access to content.”

The decision from the Copyright Board of Canada gave postsecondary institutions a deadline of March 9, 2020 to pay the outstanding royalties. Access Copyright would be able to distribute royalty payments to registered authors by the end of 2020. If the institutions fail to meet the March 9th deadline, Access Copyright will have to take further action to ensure they comply.

Open season is closed

So thank you to Access Copyright and The Writers’ Union of Canada for their tireless and consistent work on postsecondary institutions skewed interpretation of what “fair dealing” meant. In short, for institutions it meant educators copying our work, distributing it to students and not paying for it. Payment for education purposes used to mean the institution paid annual fees to Access Copyright. In turn, Access Copyright paid out annual compensation to authors.  

As an author registered with Access Copyright, I receive a cheque each year. It isn’t a lot of money but it is payment for the use of my work in classrooms or businesses that choose to excerpt my writing for their purposes. That cheque dropped significantly once colleges and universities walked away from licensing agreements with Access Copyright.

A future built on the past

Over the years, I’ve let a lot of financial opportunity pass me by. I’m one of those insecure writers, with that negative voice in the back of my brain. The one that whispers that one day I’ll learn that I’m not truly meant to be a writer. That I’ve just been lucky. That any success has nothing to do with talent or vision. That I’m fooling myself. So the annual cheque from Access Copyright has always been a validation that counters my insecurities.

Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

If my publisher hadn’t pushed me to register with Access Copyright, I may not have done it. I’ve watched how Access Copyright fought hard to bring truth to “fair dealing” for all creatives. And my membership in The Writers’ Union of Canada has meant I’ve had a front row seat to the amazing advocacy of Executive Director John Degan, who, along with the Writers’ Union board and dedicated members, helped to bring us to this stage.

The copyright fight is not over. To quote the Writers’ Union press release: “We have rates to work with,” said TWUC Executive Director John Degen, “so that’s good; and we remain confident pending court decisions will clarify that claims of fair dealing have been grossly exaggerated.”

The Copyright Board of Canada’s ruling is a significant step in the right direction. And that small voice in the back of my head is a whole lot quieter.

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2 thoughts on “Copy This – Our work is not free

  1. Great post. The digital age raises a lot of questions on what content people are willing to pay for. Netflix subscription, no problem. Newspaper subscription…maybe not. Glad the Copyright Board of Canada took a strong stance.

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