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Copyright reform simple, just ask the lawyers

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An irate email on that most delightful of subjects, copyright legislation reform, landed in my inbox at the beginning of the week.

It was a news release in the form of a "statement" from the Writers' Union of Canada.

It called the federal government's recently tabled copyright bill "an alarming attack on Canadian culture that will create a copyright-free zone in Canadian schools, colleges and universities and will erode the incomes of Canadian writers."

Goodness. An "alarming attack on culture?" Strong language, especially since the Canadian Booksellers Association had already applauded the proposed revisions as something that "serve the interests of both consumers and creators."

The next day a statement reacting to the same changes arrived from the national body representing visual artists, CARFAC. It was considerably more sanguine.

"Visual artists are happy to see progress being made in the copyright bill," it began, "but have some concerns that the proposal to expand fair dealing to educational use in Bill C32 could be costly for visual artists."

So the section on educational use interpreted as an "alarming attack on culture" by writers is causing just a few "concerns" among painters?

By the way, the artists gave two thumbs up to a sentence in the bill that allows "parody and satire" of protected art, say, Disney characters.

"The use of copyrighted work," the artists say, "has long been an important part of the creative process."

I brought this bit to the attention of Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft, whom I had interviewed the day previous for a feature article .

"Wow," responded Thorneycroft, who has felt the chill of corporate disapproval on some of her appropriations of pop-cultural icons.

"It's a huge change for visual artists. Maybe my art dealers will be willing to sell my drawings."

The same day as this exchange, the Toronto-based jazz singer Sophie Milman weighed in on the copyright bill in the Toronto Star.

Milman is not as angry as the writers, but she's no pushover like the painters. She says the bill makes no provision to pay musicians whose work is legally copied onto a digital device when they used to get paid through a levy on audio tapes and CDs.

"Why does the government believe that I'm entitled to get paid if someone copies a song of mine onto a blank CD," she asks, "but if they rip the exact same song to an iPod, I should get nothing?"

Seems like a fair point. Did the battalion of lawyers who laboured over this attempt at modernization for months, if not years, forget about this detail, or did Milman misread their intentions?

Perhaps the writers are wrong, too. Or maybe the visual artists. Who knows?

Like most Canadians who have an interest in this subject, I make do by reading the interpretations of the actual document, because the legalese of the document itself is beyond my patience, if not my grasp.

It seems, though, that copyright problems can be divided into two broad categories: those that impact upon a creator's right of ownership and recompense for his or her work; and those that impact upon other creators' abilities to build on what has gone before them.

The whole point, as a letter to the editor from Stuart Williams wisely noted the other day, "is to encourage creativity of individuals for the benefit of society."

In our digital age, it makes little sense to say, as many have, that "information wants to be free." Creators of original work should get paid for it; if you remove that incentive, people will stop creating.

On the other hand, the word "original" is a slippery thing; most artistic expression is a reaction to some earlier expression.

It makes no sense to celebrate a reinvention of Shakespeare -- because he's been dead more than 75 years -- but to prevent a mashup of the work of some living filmmaker or musician.

Based on the varied reaction to it, the proposed new legislation seems like it will close some cans of worms but open up others.

The biggest winners in the short term will likely be the lawyers.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 12, 2010 C10

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