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Federal budget’s promised copyright reform needs to be turned into action: industry

Writers, publishers, and copyright watchers alike are optimistic that the Copyright Act — which was changed in 2012 to the detriment of the publishing sector — will soon be amended after its change was included in the federal budget tabled last week.

The budget proposes to amend the Copyright Act to extend copyright protection from 50 to 70 years after the death of the author, as required by the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement, but it also noted the government’s commitment “to ensuring that the Copyright Act protects all creators and copyright holders.” The budget sets out the government’s intention to “work to ensure a sustainable educational publishing industry, including fair remuneration for creators and copyright holders, as well as a modern and innovative marketplace that can efficiently serve copyright users.”

John Degen, executive director of the Writers’ Union of Canada, which has been lobbying about this issue with other partners for the last decade, said the inclusion of amendment to the Copyright Act in the budget was good news.

“This is as positive a signal as we’ve had from the government,” said Degen, who has written about this issue for Q&Q. “This really is a commitment to making change and, more than that, it’s a recognition that something is not working, that there is real damage happening, and so change has to be made.”

But, as Degen and Access Copyright CEO Roanie Levy point out, the problem isn’t solved with a simple mention in the budget about future amendments to the act.

“Creators and publishers have not been paid for 10 years, and we can’t be taking years to deal with this,” Levy said. “It needs to happen, and it needs to happen in the months to come, and so we really are now calling for urgent legislative reform. There’s no reason to wait anymore.”

In 2012, the Copyright Modernization Act led to the collapse of the regulation of educational market copying and a significant decline in the licence payments paid to publishers and authors.

In 2013, Access Copyright sued York University, which opted out of its relationship with the copyright collective and stopped paying a tariff to make copies of materials for its students. In the summer of 2021, the case ended up at the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that, as the law is currently written, tariffs set out by the Copyright Board aren’t mandatory.

Degen and Levy say that any changes to the Copyright Act going forward need to address these outstanding issues. As it stands, the publishing industry has been hamstrung and unable to innovate due to a lack of payment.

One of the challenges for the last decade for publishers [is that] without payment for use by the education sector, there’s been very little incentive to invest in those emerging technologies and in digital, because there hasn’t been a lot of confidence that the content would be paid for,” said Kate Edwards, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers.

Degen is optimistic that an innovative industry is possible once the law is better defined and supported by functioning regulations.

“Some of the most innovative business people I know are publishers, and they’re always ahead of the game in terms of technology,” Degen said. “It’s just they haven’t been able to depend on the law to protect their product.”

The budget also restored funding cut in 2020 to the Centre for Equitable Library Access and the National Network for Equitable Library Service, organizations that produce accessible books for people with print disabilities. The 2022 budget calls for CELA and NNELS to receive $25 million from Employment and Social Development Canada from 2022 to 2027.