Skip to main content

Normally, finding your book on a university reading list or course outline can be the fulfilment of an author's fondest hopes: It means that scholars take your work so seriously they want to pass it on to the next generation.

And it can mean a big increase in book sales, directly to students or to university libraries.

At Montreal's Concordia University, however, those hopes turned to bitter disillusionment this week when poets realized that the Centre for Expanded Poetics had been scanning their books and posting them to its web page without their permission.

"I find it distressing," said Alana Wilcox, editorial director at Toronto's Coach House Books, the publisher of two of the books. "Poets make so little money … making their work available for free on a public website feels very disrespectful. … These aren't tenured professors with salaries; these are poets who are scraping by, getting no compensation for their hard work."

As well as works by Coach House poets Damian Rogers and Jeramy Dodds, the page for the centre's contemporary poetry reading group featured high-quality reproductions of entire books by such high-profile Canadian writers as Governor-General's Award winner Dionne Brand and nominee Lisa Robertson, and international poetry superstar Anne Carson, as well as leading U.S. poets including Claudia Rankine, Ariana Reines and Maggie Nelson.

The books, most of which would retail for less than $20, were available to download free to anybody who clicked on a link. Apparently, centre director Nathan Brown has been running books through a sophisticated scanner to produce copies: a picture on the reading group's Facebook page in January shows him working on a Atiz brand book scanner of a type that costs at least $10,000.

Alerted by calls from both the Writers' Union of Canada and The Globe and Mail asking whether permission had ever been given for the postings, publishers complained to the centre this week. By Tuesday afternoon, both the links to the books, some of which date back to 2015, and the Facebook post had disappeared.

Contacted at his office, Brown acknowledged the centre was in the wrong. "Posting those files was a mistake that has been corrected," he said, adding that he will be buying five copies of each book from the publishers – one for each of the five graduate students who usually attend the weekly reading group.

Brown added that the centre's scanner is also used to create a digital archive of old, out-of-print poetry magazines and said he just wanted to make the books available to students who might not be able to afford them. But the familiar plea of student poverty doesn't carry much weight with small presses or poets, who often rely on ill-paid university teaching contracts themselves.

"I think of books in the currency of lattes," Wilcox said, pointing out students do buy fancy coffee. "It's a three-latte book, and you have it forever and keep it on your shelf, while the latte you'll pee out in an hour. Somehow, we value the latte and not the book."

Society pays for what it truly values: Brown also wanted to point out that he was posting the books in a professional atmosphere in which some argue all published work should be freely available to everybody – although he added this is not his position.

And that is precisely the problem. While Google offers students links to pirated textbooks, there is no shortage of tenured Internet libertarians willing to offer some convenient intellectual cover for their use. Scofflaws in the universities have been egged on in Canada by the 2012 amendments to the Copyright Act that included a vaguely worded, broad-brush education exemption.

That ill-conceived law has encouraged widespread unlicensed copying in the Canadian education sector from universities where penny-pinching administrators drive increasingly hard bargains about what licenses they will actually buy right down to public schools where teachers rely exclusively on flimsy photocopied pages to teach pupils who don't see a textbook from September to June.

Concordia does have a prominently posted copyright guide; it's long, it's complicated and while it does make it pretty clear that what Expanded Poetics was doing is out of bounds, it also keeps talking about possible exceptions and instances of "fair dealing."

The complexity is hardly the university's fault because the 2012 law does not clearly define how much copying for educational purposes might be considered fair, nor even what constitutes an educational use. The courts might decide – if publishers and writers weren't too busy creating books to spend their days policing the Internet and too poor to lawyer up.

The Copyright Act is up for its five-year review this year and Ottawa needs to plug that education loophole good before somebody tries to drive a $10,000 book scanner right through it.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe