Canadian Education’s Disgraceful Lesson for Lawmakers


by John Degen@jkdegen

(This article was originally published in a slightly different form as an op-ed in The Hill Times, March 2, 2016. Copyright Board image courtesy me and my little camera.)

In January, I was asked to testify at the Copyright Board of Canada. Naturally, I went. When Ottawa requests my presence on matters of concern to my industry, I respectfully honour the request.

At issue was an ongoing disagreement between Canada’s post-secondary educational sector — our colleges and universities — and our domestic writing and publishing industry. Boiled down, the concern is this — Canada’s writers and publishers must be paid when our work is copied and republished as educational course packs in the college and university setting. Like anyone else providing a professional good or service to a customer, we require compensation.

The members of the Copyright Board have been set the task of deciding upon a tariff amount for industrial-scale educational copying. That’s part of what the Copyright Board does. It listens to both sides in an economic dispute over copyright, it arbitrates, and sets what it considers to be a price that is fair to both parties. It’s a reasonable, respectful, very Canadian process. Or it would be, if both sides chose to participate.

In that Copyright Board hearing room — essentially a courtroom set-up for the delivery of testimony — there were two rows of desks, one row for the writers and publishers and the other for the educational institutions. Our side was occupied by our copyright collective, their lawyers, researchers and various witnesses (myself included). The educational side was empty, but for a single student with no official standing representing any college or university. As far as I could tell, he was there to learn about the proceedings and present his views on the issue. Kudos to him for showing up.

I’m guessing Canada’s colleges and universities were asked to show up in Ottawa just as I was. In fact, I know they were, because this was a continuation of a set of hearings that had been interrupted and delayed some two years previous, and the educational side was present back then. Since then, however, education seems to have decided to thumb its nose at official process.

There was a message in those empty desks, I think. To the Copyright Board, to the current government, and to Canada’s writers and publishers, our colleges and universities seem to be saying “set whatever price you want for all that copying we do; we won’t pay it.”

We know that educational copying takes place in Canada on a massive scale. One need only note the photocopied coursepacks lining shelves in university bookstores for the past few decades, or check the backpacks of the average K-12 student. A full, physical copy of an actual book is a relative rarity these days, and in the place of books are sheets and sheets of loose copies (from books). Any suggestion that this educational copying habit will not grow as digital copying and distribution becomes the norm is disingenuous or naïve.

Education’s disrespectful snub to the Copyright Board is, sadly, part of a recent pattern of hardball intransigence. While amending the Copyright Act to make it responsive to the digital age, the federal government was lobbied by an educational sector asking for special treatment. Writers and publishers pointed out that such special treatment would mean a devastating loss for cultural workers. We were called fearmongers, our concerns dismissed as fantasy.

And yet, since passage of 2012’s Copyright Modernization Act, Canada’s educators have almost completely abandoned collective licensing for copying (a move they promised they would not take), and they actively avoid the Copyright Board. Meanwhile, direct losses to Canada’s writers and publishers have reached over $30 million per year, despite a “firm commitment” we wouldn’t lose a cent.*

Worse still, Canada’s students are suffering. There are fewer Canadian books available, since publishers can’t justify the investment and writers increasingly see no market for that kind of work. By all indications net costs to students have risen in the age of free copying.

A fix is possible, and the new government has pledged to find one. Canada’s writers and publishers are making ourselves available to be part of that solution. But it looks like the government will have to make this repair without the help of our educators.

John Degen is a novelist and poet. He is Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada, an organization representing more than 2000 professional authors. He is also Chair of the International Authors Forum, which represents over half a million professional authors worldwide. Reach him on Twitter @jkdegen

Read John Degen’s most popular Medium article: 5 Seriously Dumb Myths About Copyright The Media Should Stop Repeating.

*This will not affect any of the revenues that any of our creative people will receive. They would stay the same. There’s no loss of income in this… I’m saying with a firm commitment that there will be no loss of revenue for people who are in the creative economy. I feel that the claims you have brought forward are groundless. We’ve looked at this carefully. We’re not asking for anything for free.

- Hon. Ramona Jennex, Chair of CMEC and Minister of Education for Nova Scotia, testifying before a Parliamentary Committee in response to questions about the potential cultural damage from educational fair dealing.


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Canadian novelist and poet, Executive Director of The Writers' Union of Canada, believer in the future of the book.

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