English Matters

Opinion: The Trans-Pacific Partnership, Copyright, and Scholarship

[Ed. note: The post below is offered as part of our ongoing series of opinion pieces.  This and other such opinion pieces reflect the author’s own views, and do not necessarily represent the opinion of ACCUTE or its membership; they are offered in hopes of generating discussion among our members.]

Many of you will have recently seen an email (reposted here) from our colleague Don LePan, at Broadview Press.  In it, he addresses proposed changes to Canadian copyright law that are reportedly part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP), which could see copyright extensions of 20 years on certain works; specifically, while current Canadian copyright law maintains copyright for 50 years after the death of an author, the changes that have been reported would extend copyright to 70 years after an author’s death.

As Don says, copyright is, of course, a necessary and good thing, as many of our artist, author, and academic friends alike will attest. But anyone who worked on certain modernist authors back in the day knows how lengthy copyright control can often stifle certain avenues of research.  As Don explains, it can be especially difficult when it comes to making some material available in ways that are specifically designed to be useful for researchers and teachers.  Given this, we could witness a chill in some research circles if the TPP is approved with such a copyright extension in place.  This change could mean that material about to enter the public domain in Canada will remain in copyright for another two decades.  If retroactively applied, material currently in the public domain could placed back into copyright, which could lead to several problems for people who have published editions, anthologies, or even quoted certain material in their published work; I’ve been told of worries ranging from the need to renegotiate permissions fees, at the least, to concerns that some texts could be removed from circulation or even pulped.

Beyond research concerns, it’s important to note that the culture industry in Canada contributes significantly to our economy.  According to the Conference Board of Canada, “the economic footprint of Canada’s culture sector was $84.6 billion in 2007, or 7.4 per cent of Canada’s total real GDP,”  while “Culture sector employment exceeded 1.1 million jobs in 2007.” Compare those figures to similar data from the entire natural resources sector, which according to the federal government accounted for “1.8 million jobs” in Canada 2014, with the much touted energy sector only making up a portion of that larger figure. Meanwhile, New Zealand, which would face the same copyright extension under TPP, is predicting a cost to this change of “$55 million a year over the very long term” (http://beehive.govt.nz/sites/all/files/TPP-Q&A-Oct-2015.pdf).  Canada would likewise see a loss of “hundreds of millions of dollars” according to Michael Geist. We’ve heard in this election campaign about additional to losses in the auto and dairy sector, and the cost of potential bailouts, but more attention should be paid to the economic hit on our culture industry.

But, I’m not an economist, nor do I play one on TV. I do, however, know that the extension of copyright is a threat to research and cultural production in this country. Many people have been outraged by the reported silencing of publicly funded scientists.  Well, passing the TPP could be read as muzzling scientists by any other name, except now such muzzling could be seen to extend to the larger culture and humanities sector.

In the interest of full disclosure, I recently proposed with a colleague a small project to do during a sabbatical after my ACCUTE presidency ends, a project I’m really excited about and that will move me back into research after a relatively busy period of service.  It’s one that could be of some small use to classrooms in English, History, Film, Poli Sci, and have some popular readership.  But, it could well be killed in its crib by the extension of copyright proposed under TPP, depending on retroactive implementation.

But I’m not alone, and many other, and more important, research projects could be sidelined by the TPP.  Many of the modernist and mid-20th-century experts I work with will be similarly affected.  A colleague recently wrote to me that “It is a disaster for [his] work.”  Likewise, the types of creativity permitted by reasonable copyright duration could well be curtailed. (Enjoyed a Sherlock Holmes reboot lately?).

As Don mentions in his email, this news comes in the middle of an election season.  That said, I do not want to make this a partisan piece; but I will say that we may all want to do more reading and research on this subject, and send our individual conclusions and thoughts (if any, and whatever they may be) to our respective MPs and political leaders.

–Jason Haslam

[Ed. note: What do you think? Does the reported copyright extension affect your research? Your teaching?  Feel free to join the discussion and add your comments below.]

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