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Authors and publishers await more shrinking royalty payments from educational institutions

Carol Bruneau (Mat Dunlap)

Carol Bruneau (Mat Dunlap)

Access Copyright is warning creators and publishers to brace for yet another significant decrease in their royalty payments. The non-profit agency, which licenses Canadian artistic works to educational institutions, businesses, and others, estimates the amount it pays to creators will drop to $5 million in 2017, from $11 million the previous year – a 55 per cent decrease that is being directly attributed to a reduction in revenue from the educational sector.

Like so many Canadians who work in cultural industries, Halifax author Carol Bruneau used to rely on her annual Access Copyright royalty cheques to help pay for major purchases. But in the past three years, Bruneau’s copyright payments have decreased by more than half. Where her cheques used to cover necessities like snow tires, this year’s payout was just enough to buy a small birthday present for her son. “Incrementally, it’s been going down for the past couple years, but I was really shocked when I got my payment [for 2016],” says Bruneau. “And then the warning letter that it would be 55 per cent less in the future – that’s whittling it down to really nothing. Peanuts.”

In 2012, the Conservative government amended the country’s copyright law, expanding the “fair-dealing” provision for the purposes of education, parody, and satire. As a result of the way many educational institutions have interpreted the new fair-dealing rules – and an increase in the amount of material that is being photocopied and distributed to students – schools are paying less money to copyright holders. Roanie Levy, Access Copyright’s executive director, says the organization’s 2017 payout will be 80 per cent less than what it distributed in 2013, when copyright holders received $23.5 million. “It took some years, but we’re now feeling the impact, 100 per cent, of the decisions of educational institutions to rely on their self-interpretation of fair dealing instead of paying creators,” says Levy.

Bruneau – who receives royalty payments for her four novels and six short-fiction collections, as well other pieces that have appeared in various anthologies and publications – has no idea what material of hers is being copied under the rubric of fair dealing, but suspects it’s her short stories, which often are used for teaching, especially at the high school level. “It’s frustrating because the more you practise your writing, and the more publications you have, you think this money should grow,” she says. “The fact that it’s shrinking at an alarming rate is especially frustrating. I’ve been writing for a long time and I’m not getting any younger. It’s not that I can see making it up any time soon.”

Levy expects educational publishers and other content creators, like Bruneau, will be affected most by the forthcoming reduction. “When you consider the scope and size of these industries, and these businesses, and the income of creators, you quickly see how damaging this kind of decline is,” she says. “It’s a death by a thousand cuts.” Although Levy refers to the current situation as an “impasse,” she says Access Copyright is working with the educational sector to better understand its needs, and is testing out a transactional model that potentially could replace the traditional blanket licence. “What is absolutely critical for us is that we
develop something that meets the needs of the educational institutions,” says Levy.

While Access Copyright continues to work within the educational system, advocacy groups are hoping that changes will come from higher up. On Nov. 29, more than 1,000 writers and musicians signed an open letter to Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly asking for consideration during the federal government’s ongoing review of its cultural policies and the five-year mandated review of the Copyright Act, which is scheduled for this year. The letter, authored by the newly formed Focus on Creators coalition, was initiated as a co-operative effort between Music Canada and the Writers’ Union of Canada in hopes of finding ways to halt the elimination of middle-class artists from the market and generate opportunities for younger generations who hope to work in the sector. According to Writers’ Union executive director John Degen, the ultimate goal is to ensure that the copyright review “include[s] meaningful reform to fix the broken educational copying market. Copyright royalty cheques for copying in schools will have withered by 80 per cent before the copyright review even begins. That is a killing loss for culture.”