The dismal state of the copyright debate

I really have to get back to writing proposals and journal articles, so I’ll keep this brief.

Just last week I was hoping that the Globe and Mail (or some paper, any paper) would do some actual reporting on the ongoing Access Copyright debacle. It’s an important issue that  would benefit from some journalist doing what journalists do best: laying out the facts of the situation.

Instead, we get Kate Taylor’s opinion piece, which is squarely in the “Opinions Differ on the Shape of the Earth”camp of journalism. Rather than trying to lay out the very real and very concrete issues at stake, Taylor creates a false dichotomy (“writers v. professors”) and doesn’t even try to grapple with what’s actually at play. (That she leads off her “writers v. professors” story with an anecdote about a copyright-critical author (which would put him on the side of the professors) kind of undercuts her entire premise.)

One of the big problems with the copyright debate, and Taylor’s opinion piece displays it in spades, is the  tendency to discuss copyright in terms of philosophies and morality, and us versus them. If you keep the debate abstract enough, it’s easy to come up with lines like “writers, artists and publishers against university professors and librarians.”

But at the end of the day, we’re not debating abstract philosophies (though they may inform our positions). Rather, the copyright debate is about specific rules and regulations, and who benefits from them. Most important, you cannot have an informed, useful discussion about copyright unless you actually discuss what the rules are, or what you want them to say.

When you don’t do that, when you push the actual policy debate off to the side with a “Whatever the wrongs and rights of the fight,” as Taylor does here, you’re left with a fact-free discussion that’s all emotion and appeals to the gut.

What does the Creators Copyright Coalition’s Bill Freeman’s comment, “You are talking about a pretty powerful lobby; you have a whole bunch of university professors ganging up on writers,” actually tell us about the ins and outs of the Access Copyright debate? What are his specific concerns? Why are “a whole bunch of university professors ganging up on writers”? Is that hyperbole, or are professors really out to kick sand in Margaret Atwood’s face?

When you actually look at the facts of the debate, it becomes obvious there are no white knights. You have budget-constrained universities facing a potentially massive increase in royalty payments. You have libraries, which already pay a small fortune for licences to online databases, asking themselves if they can afford the Access Copyright licence, especially since Access Copyright refuses to let people know what’s actually in their repertoire. You have Access Copyright, fighting for relevancy in a digital world. You have some authors concerned about their future in an era where copying is so easy. You have other authors who are annoyed at the paltry sums they actually get from Access Copyright. And you have publishers, the main beneficiaries from copyright, wanting to protect their piece of the pie.

Oh, and there’s the whole society angle that Taylor neglects completely: How should society balance the need for (cost-effective) research with the (potential) need for an incentive for creation and distribution?

Look: I know that copyright is a complex issue, and that reporters and columnists are generalists who can’t be expected to get every nuance of an issue that even copyright lawyers have trouble with. Been there, done that.

But there’s already enough mud slinging and opining in the blogosphere; we don’t need any more from the pages of Canada’s National Newspaper. Taylor had a fantastic opportunity to help clarify what’s at stake in the Canadian copyright debate by looking at how copyright actually works. Instead, she produced yet another piece of big-think journalism that trades in generalities and platitudes and ends up muddying a debate that is desperately in need of clarification.

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