How paying artists for their work can help Toronto’s economy

Consumers have only recently been shocked by the massive volume of improperly secured online data. Not to mention the total loss of privacy in the digital sphere, and the super creepy habits of surveillance capitalism.

But this is all old news to artists and cultural producers.

For a couple of decades now, copyright law has been the dying canary in the digital coalmine. Long before it was obvious that web platforms were hoovering up and selling everyone’s personal information, creative professionals were battling Big Tech over copyright. We watched as our labour was snatched, grabbed and repurposed — for free — to create a few northern California billionaires, while the cultural economy tanked.

Consider how Facebook started. With the unauthorized, uncompensated use of photographs from Harvard’s online student contact site. Coding away in his dorm room late at night, did Mark Zuckerberg ask anyone for those photos? Were the owners paid for them? Of course not, and neither did Google ask or pay authors for the texts it scanned to create the Google Books archive. Despite lawsuits and appeals to legislators, pre-digital copyright all but crumpled on impact with Silicon Valley’s flashy ambitions.

Ask for permission? Who has time?

Pay for content? Make me.

Copyright law was supposed to protect us from just this kind of wholesale trespass. Yet digital commerce crashed right through its gates. And once copyright was rendered moot, Big Tech went after privacy.

All of which is why pushing back on unpermitted use of content by tech giants is a necessary first step to real and effective online regulation. The timing is great. Applying constraints, and demanding responsible behaviour online is suddenly fashionable. There’s at least one front-running U.S. presidential candidate calling for the break-up of tech monopolies. As well, Europe has set a worldwide standard with the passage of its Copyright Directive and related digital regulations. The EU expects and demands both responsible behaviour from online giants, and fair payment to its creative professionals.

Here in Canada, a couple of the federal parties have inserted moderate and doable Internet regulation into their election platforms. Yet none of them have followed Europe’s lead by putting copyright first. Which is surprising, considering Ottawa has spent the last year examining and reviewing our Copyright Act. Hundreds of hours of testimony from the cultural sector informed that review.

We even have a guidebook. A progressive, cross-party and far-reaching report, Shifting Paradigms, was produced last Spring by the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, recommending a fortification of the Copyright Act that would address the damage visited on the cultural economy over the last 20 years. Recommendations include combating piracy, new accountability for ISPs, a return to the licensing of content for those who have shunned payment, and the review and removal of over-broad exceptions to copyright that have been used to degrade it against international standards.

Everyone in Ottawa knows exactly what needs to be done to fix our Copyright Act. The Shifting Paradigms recommendations should be part of every party’s platform.

That they are not is testament to the power of the Silicon Valley lobby. Big Tech fought hard against Europe’s Copyright Directive, employing a mixture of scaremongering and disinformation. They claimed that fixing European copyright would render the Internet unworkable. They suggested paying for content would somehow lead to less content; protecting speech would somehow constrain free expression.

Well, I’ve just returned from Europe, and I’m happy to report the Internet is still on over there, there’s tonnes of content and no end of free speech.

The same Big Tech bafflegab is thrown around Ottawa all the time, and it has clearly made our lawmakers nervous about copyright. Time to stiffen those spines. Strengthening the law protecting Canada’s artists will not harm the Internet or free speech. It will improve the Internet for us all, and set the example needed to rein in the worst of privacy and data overreach as well. It will also redirect the flow of income, so less goes to California and more stays in Canada, with our artists, where it belongs.

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Canada’s cultural sector contributes more than $ 53 billion to the GDP and employs about 660,000 people. That foreign firms profit wildly from all that work, and that so much of it is grabbed for free from our workers, is a disgrace. Impoverishing the cultural sector diminishes our cities, where so much of this work takes place and is presented, feeding tourism and related industries. For instance, cultural work makes up a full eight per cent of Toronto’s economic output. Imagine how much more we could do with a greater share of the profit from our own work.

For whomever forms the next government, online regulation is a fine priority. But they must start by implementing the Shifting Paradigms recommendations to repair Canada’s Copyright Act.

John Degen is executive director of the Writers’ Union of Canada and chair of the International Authors Forum in the U.K., serving and representing over 700,000 authors worldwide. He is a poet and novelist with three published books.

TORONTO STAR

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