Writers' Union of Canada reveals its new bill of rights for authors in the digital age
The Writers’ Union of Canada has nailed up a bold new version of its “Writer’s Bill of Rights for the Digital Age”. The announcement comes in the early stages of the union’s annual conference and general meeting, which is being held this year in Vancouver and runs till Sunday (May 27).
In its latest form—as in its original one, released last fall—the 10-point manifesto is meant as a cry of protest against the trampling of writers’ copyright and intellectual property in an era when, as one popular view puts it, information wants to be free.
According to author and union chair Greg Hollingshead, the role of writers is in danger of being forgotten as governments, publishing houses, and libraries contend with the huge changes sweeping over the industry with the growing influence and popularity of ebooks.
“That’s the concern and the fear,” Hollingshead told the Straight by phone, speaking for the organization that represents nearly 2,000 Canadian authors. He pointed to the debate that raged earlier this year over federal Bill C-11, the so-called copyright modernization act, which met with widespread protest from open-media advocates—and which, Hollingshead believes, pushed the rights of writers to the sidelines.
“The C-11 debate was all about opening up technology,” he said. “The fight against the government was that it was somehow going to close down access, and so it was all about digital locks and so on. That’s where the conversation went. And the public and the students and everybody were on the side of opening it up. But we’re saying, ‘Wait, in C-11 you’re making it all too open and loose. You’re not protecting the intellectual rights of writers.’ We’re saying, ‘Please consider the fact that you can’t give the schools our work for free just because you’re using it for education. It’s copyright.’ So this is the number one item on our list. There’s this general feeling that intellectual property should somehow be free-access.”
Among the points on the Writer’s Bill of Rights are demands that publishers give writers a greater share of the proceeds of ebook sales, and that proper compensation be established for ebooks lent by libraries.
“Everybody keeps saying this is a really scary time, because we’re at the end of about 10 or 15 years of writers virtually earning less every year,” Hollingshead said. “And then there is all this excitement, or this possibility. But lots of that is hype—you always hear about the self-published author who’s making a million dollars or whatever. Most people who publish with Amazon, with no editing and no promotion, are probably going to sell 50 books. So some kind of editing, some kind of design still has to be there. How is that going to work? I don’t know. Probably the publishers will figure out a way.
“But in the meantime they tend to kind of dig in their heels against the creators, because they’re businesspeople and they’re panicking. Some of them are ready to jump off high buildings, you know? And the agents are the same—they’re losing their ability to pay for their office space, because nobody’s getting any money from selling books.”