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Author Nino Ricci (Tibor Kolley)
Author Nino Ricci (Tibor Kolley)

Nino Ricci

This updated copyright bill guts Canadian culture Add to ...

If you're a parent, take note. Ottawa is about to impoverish your child's education in the name of doing schools a favour. If you care about Canadian culture, get angry. The same government is about to punish a vulnerable cultural sector, by expropriating the rights of authors and publishers in the name of the public good.

Let me illustrate. Imagine if a government tried to reduce its education budget by requiring the makers of blackboards to provide them for free. Far from getting free blackboards, schools would soon find themselves with no blackboards at all, since every blackboard maker would have had to close up shop.

As far-fetched as this scenario seems, it is exactly what the government proposes in a new bill to reform the Copyright Act. Bill C-32, now making its way through Parliament, has a clause that will allow the free use of copyrighted material for "educational" purposes.

The motive: to pander to provinces seeking to shrink education budgets. Instead of, say, buying new textbooks, schools could simply hand out photocopies - or digital copies - of parts of existing ones. Think of the savings.

But think also of those blackboard makers. If schools are no longer paying for textbooks, how can publishers keep publishing them? Almost overnight, any publisher who's been foolish enough to develop educational materials tailored to the needs of provincial curriculums will have to stop its presses. Teachers will be left to cobble together handouts from increasingly outdated materials or from whatever they can cull from the Internet.

Proponents of the education exemption say the rules probably will still prohibit the wholesale copying of entire books. But in the wake of the exemption, there'll surely be overwhelming pressure on educators to avoid materials that have to be paid for in favour of "free" ones, even if those aren't the best.

Instead of, say, buying class sets of recent Canadian novels, schools might take the route of simply photocopying a few short stories from anthologies or putting together collections of chapters from different novels.

Or they might skip Canadian literature entirely and keep recycling the handful of familiar international standards that have been kicking around since the 1960s. Back then, it was possible to go through high school without once being exposed to a Canadian writer, a situation we may soon return to.

Canadian publishers, meanwhile, will feel the pinch, no longer able to count on their more literary titles having a second life through course adoptions or on having a new generation of readers who've been introduced to Canadian writers through the school system. As for the writers themselves, well, you get the picture.

Practically, then, the education exemption seems much more likely to hurt the cause of education than to further it. Take away the livelihoods of the publishers who publish educational materials and of the creators who create them, and those materials will quickly disappear, leaving behind "free" ones that will often be worth exactly what the school system has paid for them.

These are not small issues. At risk is a delicate ecosystem that has been painstakingly built up over many decades, one that includes not only publishers, creators and educators but whatever is unique about our culture and worth passing on to our children.

Just as troubling, the exemption flouts principles of law that have been in place for centuries. No elected government would seriously expect blackboard makers to forgo payment for their efforts. Why expect this of publishers, who operate at the slimmest of profit margins, or of writers, already amongst the country's lowest earners?

Like most writers, I patch together a living from a variety of sources, including payments from a collective that negotiates copyright fees from private and public institutions.

Such collectives have been advocates on copyright issues and have built up the infrastructure and clout for effective monitoring. Under the education exemption, however, they would be crippled, given that others who now have to buy licences to copy could credibly label their uses "educational" and copy for free.

These collectives could soon cease to function. Creators would take a double hit: no income from educational copying, and no collective to monitor non-exempt copying and collect fees from it.

In the 1980s, Canadian writers fought to establish the Public Lending Right to compensate authors for the free circulation of their books through public libraries. As Canadians borrow a staggering 10 books for every one they actually purchase, the program, underfunded and oversubscribed, doesn't come close to paying market value. Yet, most writers remain fiercely proud of it, because it's a public acknowledgment, at least, of writers' contributions and their rights.

Bill C-32 shows no such acknowledgment, sacrificing rights to short-sighted cost-cutting. In so doing, however, it may end up gutting our culture. After all the effort Canadians have put into actually building one, the savings hardly seem worth the risk.

Nino Ricci is a two-time winner of the Governor-General's Award for fiction.

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