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Getting copyright “right” is important for Canada’s creative sector but also for the cultural and economic well-being of Canadians, especially during this time of COVID-19.

Like so many other sectors of our economy, our creative industries – authors, musicians, playwrights, actors, directors – were hit hard by the pandemic. Unfortunately, Canada’s current copyright regime has deepened that blow – limiting opportunities they may have had to recover any lost income.

For example, royalties to Canadian writers, visual artists and publishers for the use of published materials have fallen precipitously since changes to the Copyright Act were enacted back in 2012. Those changes included adding education as a “fair-dealing exception”: Fair dealing is the right of a user to reproduce copyrighted materials without payment or permission under specified circumstances and limits.

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The addition of education as a fair-dealing purpose was so vaguely worded it has allowed most educational institutions at primary, secondary and postsecondary levels to cease payment to the collective societies that represent creators. Ultimately, where once educational institutions paid to copy sections from books, newspapers and other published materials for students, most now help themselves for free, depriving Canadian creators and publishers of countless millions in royalties.

Musicians also know the feeling of seeing their work taken for free or undervalued. Ever since the shift from analog to digital media, they have dealt with the “value gap” – where the platforms that house digital content reap the financial rewards with just a trickle left over for those who actually provide the content that make these platforms viable businesses. When live performances, often the only way musicians can earn a fair return these days, were stopped, the often-meagre funds realized from digital streaming were all that remained.

And if all this wasn’t enough, a most unwelcome surprise arrived – with a ruling from the Federal Court of Appeal. It escaped most people’s notice, but for the creative industries, it highlighted just how broken copyright in Canada actually is. The court ruled that tariffs approved by the Copyright Board are not “mandatory” for those who use unlicensed content, even though that has been the practice for the past several decades. Until now, the practice has been that if the board approves a tariff, it applies to all users of the content whether or not they are willing to enter licensing arrangements with the collective. The effect of this ruling undermines the fundamentals of copyright collectives in Canada that license content on behalf of their members.

As the ground was shifting under creators because of the pandemic, this ruling leaves collectives virtually powerless to ensure a fair return for use of creators' works. If left unchallenged, the ruling will be a crippling body blow to writers, visual artists, publishers, musicians, songwriters and anyone else who makes a living creating. Parliament needs to clarify what a “mandatory tariff” means.

Canada’s creators and creative industries have suffered a double blow. COVID-19 has shut down many of the channels by which they reach their audience and earn a living. Canada’s broken copyright system has made the situation that much worse. As the pandemic has exposed a number of holes in our social fabric that need fixing, our copyright system needs fixing too.

Hugh Stephens writes a weekly blog on international copyright issues.

The Globe has five brand-new arts and lifestyle newsletters: Health & Wellness, Parenting & Relationships, Sightseer, Nestruck on Theatre and What to Watch. Sign up today.

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