Since the 1847 Customs Act prohibiting the importation of books with “immoral or indecent character,” writers and booksellers, most particularly shops specializing in alternative and LGBT texts, have been fighting for our freedom to read.
Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop – the oldest surviving bookstore of its kind in North America – and Vancouver’s Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium have fallen victim to persistent attacks by the government’s morality squad. Glad Day manager Scott Dagostino recalls the Canada Customs agents confiscating shipments of allegedly “obscene” titles at their own discretion: “Working at Glad Day as a clerk in the mid-1990s, I vividly remember receiving a box of paperback copies of an American collection of gay short stories edited by Armistead Maupin,” he says. “The box had been previously opened, the books pulled out and roughly stuffed back in by customs guards. Half of them were bent and torn, and impossible to resell. It was sad and infuriating.”
Glad Day’s owner and manager were both arrested in 1992 and later convicted on charges of obscenity for stocking lesbian BDSM magazine Bad Attitude, which led staff to team up with Little Sister’s in its groundbreaking Supreme Court of Canada case. The stores suffered as a result, but made great strides for Canadian LGBT literature.
“Profits that could have been spent, say, buying a building for the shop in Toronto were instead spent on legal fees,” Dagostino says. “But, in the end, freedom of speech prevailed and now people can fearlessly purchase Fifty Shades of Grey in their favourite bookshop thanks to Little Sister’s and Glad Day. As always, we were just 20 years ahead of the curve.”
How can copyright go so wrong?
For many people, the polarizing Copyright Act of Canada is one of the country’s most confusing pieces of legislation, with a history too complex for these pages. So here’s a Copyright 101 from John Degen, executive director of The Writers’ Union of Canada:
▶ If you create it, you own it. If someone wants to use what you own, there needs to be a discussion. That’s the whole basis of copyright.
▶ It doesn’t mean nothing’s free or available; it means there needs to be a discussion.
▶ Removing or severely weakening copyright means there are no discussions, which means you don’t actually own what you create. If you don’t own what you create, you have no legal
protection as a professional.
BookNet Canada’s reality-based revolution
Before the advent of BookNet Canada in 2002, many Canadian bestseller lists were as fictional as the novels they featured, usually the result of educated guesses at best. When BookNet, a non-profit organization created to modernize and streamline the industry, began to aggregate sales data from nearly all Canadian book retailers, publishing got a much-needed (though not always welcome) dose of reality. Agents had a harder time bluffing their way into large advances, underperforming authors found themselves out in the cold, and sales reports suddenly became a common feature at publishers’ acquisition meetings. And books with small marketing budgets but large readerships – which might have previously been ignored by the media – are now often hailed as sleeper hits. BookNet numbers also showed that Canadians really do consume an abnormally large amount of domestic literary work. Reality is rarely pretty, but it isn’t always cruel.