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Canadian science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow is a vocal advocate for the rights of computer users.
Canadian science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow is a vocal advocate for the rights of computer users.

Publishing

It's writers v. professors in the latest war of words Add to ...

Like many parents, science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow judges the future according to how it might treat his young daughter. A vocal advocate for the rights of computer users, he brought himself to the brink of tears at a recent Vancouver conference as he imagined an era in which electronic devices continually spy on their owners looking for copyright infringement.

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“If the only way to keep my trade alive is to redesign the devices that fill our pockets, run our cars, carry our love notes and comprise our entire present-day system of political and civic engagement so they spy on us and betray us, then I am just going to go out and get a real job,” said Mr. Doctorow, a Canadian who lives in Britain. “Because I want to be free more than I want to be a writer. I want my daughter to be free, I want my nation to be free and I want the future to be free.”

So, the copyright debate has come to this. We have reached the point where apparently sensible professionals will speculate that freedom of expression and making a living as a writer may become mutually exclusive. Of course, other equally sensible professionals will speculate that if we don't offer them the technological protections to which Mr. Doctorow is so opposed, all creators will simply cease to produce any content at all.

The battle is bitter and widening; increasingly, it engulfs large middle-class groups, with differing economic interests, who fight about access to education and a creator's right to get paid. A battle that used to be waged by record labels against 12-year-olds now pits writers, artists and publishers against university professors and librarians.

The debate is particularly vociferous in Canada these days because we are facing another attempt to update the copyright law: The federal government is widely expected to reintroduce a version of Bill C-32 – which died on the order paper with last spring's election – before Christmas. That previous bill permitted producers to lock up their content by digital means and, to the anger of users'-rights advocates, made breaking the locks illegal even if you were doing it for permissible reasons, such as burning a backup copy of a DVD you had bought or moving tracks from your CD to your iPod. The bill also added educational uses to a list of permitted exceptions, a broad exemption that has many in the publishing community running scared.

“Canada has become a battleground for this,” says Robert Levine, a business writer in the U.S., where the copyright law was updated in 1998 but is still contentious. “A country that – no offence – I normally identify as the essence of moderation compared to American politics has become extreme.”

Mr. Levine, the author of a forthcoming book entitled Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business can Fight Back, would like to see the moral arguments removed from the debate. He believes that we are simply dealing with a broken market in which distributors are making money but producers aren't.

He seems unlikely to be satisfied. Underneath the stereotypes of monstrous media interests and thieving teenagers lies an argument between people who are neither fabulously wealthy nor heroically marginalized but are well armed with social and economic arguments for their positions.

There are the university professors who are used to sharing their research and the freelance writers shocked at the pressure to simply give their work away; there are the librarians delighted with the easy access to digital information and the authors appalled at the prospect of e-book piracy. Both sides will accuse the other of acting as stalking horses for large commercial interests, whether technology companies or entertainment studios, but insist that their own position is only sensible and just.

The knowledge community is divided against itself.

“These groups, these categories, the conversation has become so contentious and hostile it is hard to have a discussion,” says Matt Ratto, an assistant professor in the faculty of information at the University of Toronto.

Although Prof. Ratto and his colleagues may publish or perish, they don't make their living from their copyrights; they earn their salaries from researching their subjects and sharing that knowledge. A book or article does not make them money directly; it wins them prestige and promotions.

“It is a reputation economy,” Prof. Ratto says.

That makes many scholars naturally sympathetic to the idea they should share their work for free, especially if they labour in places such as the faculty of information. In the computer sciences, the example of open-source software in which the bugs get corrected by a community of users who guarantee a higher-quality product than proprietary versions is a powerful one – powerful enough that some predict it will force itself into other industries.

“The economics of software create a hothouse, but once they are strong, these models can work elsewhere,” says Yuri Takhteyev, another professor in the U of T faculty of information, arguing that open source has financial support from tech companies, institutional support from the universities and, now, an ideology behind it.

Prof. Takhteyev sees the Creative Commons, an online licensing system in which creators can spell out what free uses they will permit, as an attempt to apply that community model to books and movies. “They have a harder road ahead of them, but if you asked me in the late nineties if I thought Wikipedia would work, I wouldn't have thought it would work either.”

However, nobody is paying to use Wikipedia and no one is being paid to contribute to it. This is one of the reasons it is difficult to find middle ground in this debate: Users' advocates may believe digital locks are untenable and media instructors may argue that tight copyright controls ignore the world of interactive content that the consumer is supposed to modify, but for those who live off publishers' advances, royalties or freelance fees, the alternative schemes that are presented sound mainly like fantasies driven by unlikely subscriptions, intrusive advertising or, worse yet, donations from an online audience.

These conflicting philosophies are currently being aired in a bitter fight between the universities and colleges and Access Copyright, the agency that licences educational institutions to copy material for their students' use, paying the money back to publishers and writers. Access Copyright has gone to the federal Copyright Board asking for a new, higher tariff that would cover digital copying, but, in the meantime, many institutions are simply pulling out of the scheme, saying they already pay for digital licences elsewhere.

Whatever the wrongs and rights of the fight, it creates the odd spectacle of universities playing hardball with textbook publishers and freelance writers. Their negotiators have their positions at their fingertips; not so the rank and file. Many professors just dismiss Access Copyright as out of touch with technological reality; many writers feel under attack from the education sector.

“You are talking about a pretty powerful lobby; you have a whole bunch of university professors ganging up on writers,” said Bill Freeman, chair of the Creators' Copyright Coalition, an artists lobby.

The fear is not without some justification: The creators are facing a powerful lobby at whose behest Bill C-32 added education to a list of purposes where work copying would not infringe copyright – the existing ones include private study and criticism – without defining the term. The educational institutions and libraries support the exemption. Creators groups, meanwhile, spent the summer trying to sway MPs: They foresee a dark scenario in which Canadian schools and universities do not pay for any course materials because they can always snatch a free copy from somewhere.

Some observers think this is alarmist because the exemption is an instance of “fair dealing” that is not intended to circumvent copyright law.

“My view was that this is a fundamental misreading of how fair dealing works,” says Ottawa Internet law professor Michael Geist, an advocate for users' rights. “The government wasn't proposing giving anybody the right to blanket copying.”

But creators complain that they will have to resort to the courts to get “fair” defined.

When the Copyright Board gave Access Copyright a $5.16-a-student tariff for copying in elementary and secondary schools in 2009, the provincial ministers of education appealed, arguing that copying material to distribute to children in schools is fair dealing. In May, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear the case. How do you argue with the teacher?

“It's good guys versus good guys by and large,” says Caitlin Fisher, Canada Research Chair of Digital Culture at York University in Toronto. “Writers and artists should feel they have allies in the universities. ... It is not the case that a whole generation just wants to steal ideas. There has to be some way of moving forward.”

 

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