Unless you’re a writer, you probably don’t think much about copyright law. But if you are a parent, or care at all about education, copyright needs to be on the top of your mind.
A quick overview:
Authors get paid for their work in the form of royalties – a percentage of revenue from each book sold. If books are not bought and paid for, authors don’t earn a penny from our work.
That was all fine and dandy in an era when you couldn’t photocopy anything, or snap a quickie scan of any page you liked on your phone. But today, when books are copied and distributed in this manner, authors go hungry.
To solve that problem, Access Copyright was founded in 1988. A collective representing authors, illustrators and publishers, Access Copyright negotiates agreements with institutions, giving them the right to photocopy copyrighted Canadian works in exchange for a licensing fee. The income from these fees is distributed to creator members. The annual cheques creators received from Access Copyright used to be a significant part of our income.
Used to be.
The situation changed in 2012 when a change to the Canadian copyright law came into effect. It included a so-called “fair dealing” clause that allowed people and institutions to photocopy materials for a variety of purposes without a license. Included in that clause was the devastating word: Education.
Even though the wording of the ruling placed limits on how much of a book or article could be photocopied, in practice, educational institutions no longer felt obligated to pay a licensing fee to Access Copyright. Even if they photocopied whole books.
For authors of children’s books, for whom most of our book sales come from schools and libraries, the new fair dealing clause destroyed our careers. School districts could buy only one copy of a book and distribute photocopies – at no charge – to every child.
Fair dealing was certainly not fair.
So Canadian writers fought back. Access Copyright filed a law suit against York University, one of the most flagrant abusers of the clause. Over the next few years, the case wound its serpentine way through the courts. And many institutions kept using our work without submitting any licensing fees.
For individual creators, the Canadian marketplace suddenly looked less appealing than it had before. We couldn’t make a living creating books or other materials for children – if they were educationally oriented in any way, there was no chance of making any money on it.
During this period, many Canadian creators simply stopped producing books for Canadian children. We turned our faces south, and abroad, where our work would be purchased and paid for.
So if you go into your kids’ classroom, don’t be surprised if you find very few current resources dealing with specifically Canadian topics. And what will mostly be on the school shelves will be older, out-of-date materials, or materials produced by non-professionals. The quality just isn’t there.
Now -- the good news. After years of fighting, the courts ruled in favour of Access Copyright and Canadian creators. Schools, universities and libraries would indeed have to pay licensing fees for photocopying our materials.
And now the bad news.
The losing institutions like York University still refused to pay. In fact, they sued Access Copyright and Canada’s creators for excessive fees in the past.
And the worse news: in April, Canadian courts upheld the original decision in favour of Access Copyright, but then said that Access Copyright may not charge institutions that don’t comply with the rule. In other words, the current law says creators are entitled to royalties from photocopied work, but our collective will have no power to enforce their payment.
That means individuals like me would have to individually go after major institutions for every single copyright breach of my work.
That’s impossible, of course. So like many other Canadian children’s writers, I will continue to focus on writing materials that can earn royalties outside of Canada’s educational system.
And who will wind up paying the most? Canada’s students, who will find themselves with free access to American-produced materials, materials created by non-professionals without content oversight or technical skills.
This isn't copyright. It's copy wrong.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.