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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2003

Copyright Hearings Bogged Down

The latest round of Canada's Copyright Act reform is "not off to a good start," says Ken Field, chair of CAUT's intellectual property working group.

Through October and November the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage conducted hearings on possible amendments to the act. The process is expected to continue in the new year and will have an important impact on the university community.

"What's at stake is the way society views knowledge," Field said."Is it part of the common heritage of humanity? Or is it a commodity that can be completely owned and locked down by private interests?"

The sometimes heated debate before the committee has centred around the issue of balance. On one side, the "users" - those who make use of copyright material - argue the act must fairly represent the interests of not only those who own copyright material but also those who listen to, read and borrow it. In contrast, the "owners" believe the act's purpose is to enhance the monetary interests of those who hold copyright in works.

"The Supreme Court of Canada is very clear about this," Field says. "The court has stated the Copyright Act is about promoting both the public interest in the dissemination of works and obtaining a just reward for creators."

Field speculated that proceedings are bogged down because the owners' lobbyists have done an excellent job of presenting themselves as the voice of the individual artist.

"Their line seems to be that the only thing standing between Canada's young artists and death by starvation is a more restrictive Copyright Act," Field said. "And the committee is eating it up."

According to Field, while the industrial lobbyist's use of the starving artist motif has been an effective political tactic, it is one people are starting to see through.

"Justice for the individuals who write, paint and sculpt has to be central to cultural policy," Field said. "Unfortunately, the problem is that with the massive consolidation in the recording, publishing and broadcasting industry, a deep gulf is growing between the interests of individual artists and their corporate partners."

He points to the example of Jonathan Tasini, former president of the National Writers Union in the United States, who lead a long and ultimately successful legal battle against The New York Times to secure rights for freelance writers. Field said Tasini forged an alliance with the American Library Association and credits its intervention in his case before the U.S. Supreme Court as an important element in his victory.

"The Tasini case represents the beginning of the end of the traditional copyright dichotomy of creators verses users," Field said. "What was striking in Tasini v. The New York Times was that writers and librarians, creators and users, came together to challenge the owners - the publishing industry."

Field notes that another issue before the Commons heritage committee is the possible extension of the term of protection offered by the Copyright Act. Copyright currently lasts for the life of the author plus 50 years, after which the work passes into the public domain and can be used and copied without restriction. Copyright owners are pressing to extend the term to "life plus 70."

"The term 'extension issue' perfectly illustrates what this round of reform is about," Field says. "As the copyright in corporate property such as Mickey Mouse begins to run out, the big publishers want the act rewritten in their favour, to keep their monopoly going at the expense of the public domain. It's ridiculous to suggest this has anything to do with helping individual creators, but that's how the owners' community is trying to sell it."

Although Field says he's disappointed by the tone of the initial set of committee hearings, he remains optimistic the scholarly community can still shape the act in a way that facilitates the broader public interest in a balanced law.

"Copyright law wasn't much of an issue in the university community five years ago, but a passion about it is building," Field said. "If that passion can be mobilized into political action then the public domain has a chance."