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Russell Wangersky: Let them eat … nothing

MUN campus and clock tower — Memorial University photo
MUN campus and clock tower — Memorial University photo

I’ll say it up front — this is a column about self-interest. As well as columns and editorials, I write books in whatever extra time I have — seven books in all, now — and I pay attention when people talk about them.

Russell Wangersky

Especially when universities talk joyfully about using my work for free.

Many are. They justify it because current legal decisions on copyright say educators can photocopy up to 10 per cent of my work and sell those photocopies to students without paying me anything. And every now and then, a university official, like Memorial University of Newfoundland’s copyright officer, Nancy Simmons, will write about that concept, called “fair dealing,” implying that my wanting to be paid for my work is wrong.

Here is Simmons, from the MUN Gazette: “When you are dealing with a work of copyright, the law says you can,” Simmons says. See what I did there? I put Nancy Simmons’ words in quotation marks — because they are her words. She wrote them. It would be unethical for me to simply steal them.

“We pay for copying that goes beyond fair dealing or our students purchase textbooks; we don’t pay for fair dealing. Someone paid for the legal source we use (usually the library). The author can’t expect that everyone at the university or even all the students in a course will buy a copy,” Simmons writes.

Truth is, I don’t expect everyone to buy a copy — but if they are using part of my work, I do expect to be paid a commensurate part.

“Sometimes I borrow my favourite author from the library because I’m not made of money,” Simmons writes.

I’m not made of money either. But I am expected to pay for what I use. Is MUN, for example, telling people that, if they can’t pay tuition, MUN will happily educate them for free? No.

It’s a different story when large corporations hold copyright.

If you look at the journals and materials MUN bought without public tender in October 2016, you’ll see that, when the university couldn’t just slap a book down on the photocopier, they did pay copyright users. They paid handsomely.

In just that month, when MUN had to actually buy access to work, they paid out $884,789.02. In one month. Those journals control their copyright tightly enough that they can actually ban MUN from copying the work or providing the open access they take happily with my work.

The very thing that Simmons says can’t be done actually is being done. By her own university library, which operates as copyright gatekeeper, telling users how they can use work.

I read Simmons’ defence on the same day that I received an annual email from Access Copyright. In 2012, I made some $800 from universities and others who wanted to use my work to further their business. Last year, as Simmons and the fair dealing crowd continue to photocopy with wild abandon, that dropped to $204.29 — even though I now have four more published books than 2012.

“But I am filled with an insatiable need to consume copyright within the legal parameters set down by law. I hope it all balances out in the end. … If I had been restricted to only what I have paid for, I’m not sure I could have written this cleverly worded defense against those who think I owe them money,” Simmons writes.

I wonder what the cleverly worded response would be if every single employee at MUN — like every single living Canadian author — was being told “we’re going to hold back a chunk of your pay. Because, you know, fair dealing. It’s not really your pay anyway, because what you do has no worth, and no value.”

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at Russell.wangersky@tc.tc — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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