Writing Rights: Public Speaking Out

While so much of that discussion can be about the very positive and encouraging changes to the writing life, we were also reminded that writers have always been pressured to not write about certain topics, to not use certain words, and to not publicly express certain ideas. New technologies and new media may have brought writers all sorts of fantastic new tools for self-expression, but these things have also brought new tools to those who would censor us.
Larry Hill’s well-documented experience of being threatened, via email, with the burning of his international bestseller The Book of Negroes is certainly an instance when closer engagement with one’s readers can be as uncomfortable and maddening as it is fulfilling. Of course, Larry Hill knows how to take a bad situation and make it good.

From the harrowing experience of a threatened book-burning came Larry’s 2013 Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture at the Canadian Literature Centre at the University of Alberta, which was followed by the publication of Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book (University of Alberta Press 2013). So, the attempted suppression of thought and speech inspired yet more thought and speech. As it should.

Not anywhere near the same scale, but involving similar anxiety — for me at least — is my own ongoing worry and uncertainty about when to say, or not say, the word copyright. Having written extensively about intellectual property law in the media, spoken about it on television and radio, and blogged about the subject seemingly endlessly for the last decade, I know that the word copyright is at once a firecracker with an incredibly short fuse and one of the world’s greatest soporifics. In other words, when I haul out copyright during one of my regular public speaking engagements, I either lose half the audience to spontaneous napping or I have to duck incoming shoes.

Imagine my enthusiasm, then, when our Chair, Dorris Heffron, told me that my part in an upcoming presentation to European graduate students was to entertain them with stories about Canadian copyright reform. Dorris would bring them gently onside with the history of the Union and the colourful personalities who founded our organization, Gilbert Reid would entice them with tales of Canadian studies programs in their own lands, Olive Senior would charm them with her immigrant writer experience, and I would release an anvil of boredom onto their heads by talking copyright.

How do you make copyright interesting? You don’t. It’s not interesting. In many presentations I’ve joked it’s the most fascinating deadly boring topic I know. But at the heart of copyright’s many Byzantine clauses and regulations is the core concept of fairness, and I’ve learned that absolutely everyone is interested in fairness. What’s more, everyone has an instinctual understanding of what is fair, and what is not fair.

I began my talk by picking up a copy of Dorris Heffron’s latest book, City Wolves. “This is a big book,” I said. “It’s just over 450 pages long.” There was a general murmur of agreement from the students who, it should be noted, were on about day 10 of a cross-Canada lecture tour. Tough room, let me tell you.

“You’re interested in this book, but don’t want to buy it. You really only need a bit of it. You’d rather copy it — photocopy it, scan it, whatever. The law allows you do that, but says you can only copy short excerpts. Sound fair?”
More nodding.

“What is a short excerpt? Give me a number of pages. How much of this 450-page book do you think you should be permitted to copy for free?”

“Half a page,” someone said. “One page,” from someone else. “Two pages,” said a third, followed by the shaking of heads and the beginning of general disagreement.
When I told them colleges and universities in Canada are taking 45 entire pages of a 450-page book without paying the author, they were stunned. They were arguing over one or two pages — less that 0.5% of the text in question. That someone would claim an entire 10% seemed impossibly unfair to them. Because it is.

Disagreeing with campus copying policies can be an unpopular, uncomfortable position to take these days. TWUC is often reminded that many writers work on campuses and depend on friendly administrations to continue paying them. Student groups, faculty groups, and librarian groups often support expanded copying in the name of cost-savings and academic freedom. The issues around copyright are muddied and confused by competing interests, most of whom are struggling with reduced revenues and growing expenses.

But feel the weight of that 450-page book. Understand the years of work that went into it. Then ask yourself, and anyone who will listen, how taking so much of that book without paying could ever be considered fair.