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Russell Wangersky: Artist legislation must be more than window dressing

They like me! They really like me!

Actually, they don’t necessarily like me, but at least the provincial government has decided that I’m a professional.

 

Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky

 

No, they haven’t decided that I’m a professional journalist — but I’m soon to be a legislatively approved professional artist.

That’s because the province is getting ready to debate Bill 22, “An Act Respecting the Status of Artists in the Province.”

Given the definitions in the current form of the act, well, I’m in.

So far, the proposed bill has gotten a pretty good reception: artists of all kinds, often toiling away in solitude for peanuts, like to be publicly recognized as much as anyone else does.

But what the bill actually commits the government to do is relatively small. Primarily, it requires the government to act as professionally with artists as it does with anyone else it contracts with for goods or services.

As a writer, I wish the government had taken at least one more step. I wish it would make sure that its agencies don’t continue to flaunt the real spirit of copyright law, and require them to fairly pay for the work they use.

But what the bill actually commits the government to do is relatively small. Primarily, it requires the government to act as professionally with artists as it does with anyone else it contracts with for goods or services.

Most of all, I’m talking about Memorial University.

There is a licensing agency, Access Copyright, that the university could pay for a licence to use Canadian literary works, particularly works that MUN copies and either sells or hands out to students, instead of actually buying. MUN, like most Canadian universities, doesn’t want to pay, and is instead hanging its hat with those other universities, claiming that it has a right to use the work of Canadian writers essentially for free. (While, it should be pointed out, those same universities are paying foreign companies millions of dollars for access to copyrighted scientific and other journals.)

The damage MUN is doing is twofold: first, there’s the fact that writers lose income from the theft. The university, no doubt stealing an idea from George Orwell’s “1984,” calls taking work without paying for it “fair dealing,” and doesn’t even see the irony in its position.

Second, as an institution of higher learning, MUN is implicitly teaching their students that artistic works have no value.

MUN has trotted out various arguments for why it’s continuing to use the Canadian universities model for how to avoid paying to use copyrighted works, even though that model was struck down by the Federal Court earlier this year. (The case is now under appeal.)

My favourite part of their defence is MUN officials arguing that taking copies of parts of copyrighted works is like buying a car and then being free to lend that vehicle out. That is the sort of logic that would also, I suppose, allow MUN to sell Christmas cards using images of art it has purchased, or launching a music service it charges fees for, because it happened to buy a CD of the music it’s reselling once upon a time. (I wonder if the same “lending” analogy would apply so freely if a MUN professor patents a new wonder drug and I buy just one dose, and then manufacture and sell that “fair dealing” drug at whatever price I choose. Probably not.)

Now, I understand that Memorial is an independent institution, and that, while the government pays a good chunk of the university’s operating expenses, that same government can’t just tell the university administration what to do. I understand my beef is with the university — an institution that feels Canadian literary works are valuable enough to use to teach their paying students, but not valuable enough for the university to actually pay for.

But if the government’s commitment to the value of artists wasn’t simply hollow, the government could choose to pay the copyright levies that MUN turns its nose up at paying, and pay them itself — and the government then could deduct a similar amount from the university’s annual grant.

Because, unless I’m reading it wrong, the core of the new Status of the Artist legislation is that the government is committing that it and its agencies will operate in good faith with the province’s cultural sector.

Memorial University is not acting in good faith.

Let’s see if the legislation has teeth, or whether it’s just more happy lip service.

 

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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