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Wordworks > Winter 2002/03 > Copyright isn't as boring as people seem to think

Copyright isn't as boring as people seem to think.

But then how could it be? It is, however, a subject whose basics all writers should know.

Guenther Krueger

For most people, the word “copyright” conjures up the same feeling as having to clean the toilet, do taxes, or repair the gutters. It’s sort of a necessary evil, something we think about only if we have to. Isn’t it legal, dry, and like really really boring?

Well yes, the law is hard to turn into an electrifying read. But as a writer, there are some things you should know, and like all of those niggly things on the periphery of your consciousness, potentially more interesting and relevant the more you learn about copyright and what it means to you and your work.

Let’s begin by putting the concept into some sort of context. Where did this idea that your creative work could be somehow protected come from? Actually it’s a child of the French Revolution and as such, has become enshrined as a fundamental human right adopted by the UN in 1948. Most countries are signatories in one way or another.

Copyright—literally “the right to copy”—is a subsection of a large area of law dealing with intellectual property. The other domains are patents, trademarks, industrial designs, confidential information, and chip protection (not the Fritos but rather the ones in your microwave and Palm Pilot).

Copyright, which you own as soon as you put something into a tangible form—whether it’s on paper, your hard-drive, or even a piece of birch bark—is covered by the Copyright Act, enacted in Canada by Parliament in 1921. Now that we’ve come this far, I should warn you that just about everything in this article is simplified. Copyright law encompasses a complex and far-reaching set of rights, but I’ll keep it as straightforward and relevant to the writing business as possible so that you don’t start thinking about dusting or doing laundry rather than continue reading.

First of all, we’re not talking about an idea. Something in your head or in conversation does not fall under copyright protection. It must be in some tangible form. It must originate with the author, not be a copy of anything else, and must be the fruit of your efforts alone. The law also states that the author (“creator”, actually—copyright covers far more than writing) must use skill, experience, labour, taste, discretion, selection, judgment, personal effort, knowledge, ability, reflection, and imagination. Yikes! I know quite a few books that probably shouldn’t be copyrightable, but let’s not go there.

Copyright is automatic, as soon as something is created. You don’t have to worry about putting a © symbol on it, or marking the manuscript, although it doesn’t hurt. What is most troublesome to writers these days is protecting the various forms of copyright, and exploiting it commercially so that you, and not someone else (like the publisher), reap the rewards.

Intellectual property has in this, the information age, become a huge and valuable commodity. International agreements, such as NAFTA and WTO agreements, consider this area potentially highly lucrative and thus contentious. This filters down to you and me in the form of rights-grabbing contracts by multinational publishers, and thorny irritants such as no additional compensation for electronic or digital versions of our work. Writers have been protesting for years about their work going on line without their permission, their books being turned into CD-ROMs and so forth. It’s all part of the larger tension of “users” (Napster down loaders, internet surfers, library patrons) versus “copyright holders”—people like you and me. This tension is reflected in Canada within the federal government in the two departments that manage and control the Copyright Act. Industry Canada tends to favour users, Canadian Heritage favours rightsholders. And, being government, the arguments are political. For example, the marketplace will determine values, protection is counterproductive, artists need to be better at business and not so whiney about their output, and on it goes.

What can you do? The first step is to read articles like this. Every scrap of information is power and the more you know, the more you will protect your copyright and in the process, help all other artists through collective pressure. When it comes time to sign a contract or negotiate terms, find out more about what you’re signing away. It’s like buying a car. If you paid the price the salesman asked, he would first choke on his coffee, then wonder where the turnip truck was that you fell from, and then regain his composure and treat you very, very nicely. But you’re going to become educated, and not give away something that is, after all, your fundamental human right as a human being. Remember the Bastille!

An excellent place to start is with the Access Copyright website <www.accesscopyright.ca>. You can obtain more information about copyright in Canada. And of course you can affiliate if you are a published author. There is no fee. Access Copyright, The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (formerly CANCOPY), protects writers like you by offering licenses to large sectors such as government, education, and corporations, so that they must provide compensation when work is photocopied, or, as is more and more the case, downloaded digitally. How much are we talking about? It is estimated that worldwide, 500,000 pages are photocopied—are you sitting down?—every minute! And that number is increasing.

Some of this information is taken from the very best book available on the subject: Canadian Copyright Law by Lesley Ellen Harris. It’s widely available in any library and has everything you need to know. Websites for major writers’ organizations such as The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) <www.writersunion.ca> and the Periodical Writers’ Association of Canada (PWAC) <www.pwac.ca>, also contain links to sources. Federal government pages are also useful, although finding just what you need might be more difficult than browsing through Harris’ book.

Many of the issues I have touched on will become increasingly complex as technology develops. Are you breaking the law by forwarding an email? (Yes you are.) Can you be held liable for printing something from the internet? (Yes, in some cases.) Can you be asked to sign away “new uses” for your work? (Yes, you might even be asked for rights to technologies not yet developed, a very annoying clause indeed.)

As we enter the digital era, the Copyright Act is about to be revised. Many of us are concerned that industry will gain the upper hand. Those pesky “users” I mentioned earlier are vocal and well organized, although to be fair, you and I sometimes switch hats and become them as well. But you should be concerned, as pressures mount to attempt to take away your potential for compensation as your work is copied. Keep in mind that most of us are not bothered simply because people read and then copy our work. But we do want payment. And we want control. If my work is on a website, I want to know about it, be paid for it if I didn’t authorize it, and have the ability to have it removed if I complain. And that’s my right. Hey, I’ve read Les Misérables!

The other trend that will affect us all is increased globalization. Canada, along with other countries, no longer has the luxury of being able to control its own destiny when it comes to trade issues. We must play along with the World Trade Organization, and other bodies such as the World Intellectual Property Organization. They will increasingly dictate how creators must act and to what extent protections are offered. If it all seems a bit scary and overwhelming, keep in mind that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Canada has a long and honourable tradition of protecting human rights, including copyright. We are at the table, and we can set the agenda. We have reciprocity and lines of communication with the whole world when it comes to copyright.

I hope this brief overview will give you a taste of what copyright is all about. If someone steals a book from your home, it’s property theft. When someone steals the contents, it’s also theft, even though the property is intellectual. But it’s a crime and should be treated as such. Once you have a better understanding of your own value and that of the work you produce, you will probably feel just as violated and angry when your work is unfairly exploited. We must all work together to protect artistic creation in any medium, at all times, and everywhere in the world.

Guenther is a long-time supporter of the Federation and also a member of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada and on the board of the Canadian Science Writers Association as well as The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency. Although he does mostly medical writing, he's also covered topics as diverse as home improvement and hotel management. Like most freelancers, he wears quite a few hats.

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