Friday, October 17, 2008

On Poetic Justice and Subsidies

Countless reputable pundits and reports have pointed out that the Conservative Government may have missed its opportunity to get a majority in the October 14, 2008 election because it insisted on cutting $45 million from subsidies to the arts. Whether or not that was actually what was done or intended doesn’t matter for present purposes - perception was reality, at least in Quebec.

What about subsidies to the arts? There are many justifications for them. Historically, the main ones include:
1. The arts - at least those worthy of the name - require subsidies because they are inherently elitist and expensive. Once upon a time, at least in Western Europe, the subsidies came from the Church. Then Kings and Queens and lesser royalty. Then robber barons. And now governments.
2. Why now from governments? That’s because we now have something called democracy. Overall, taxpayers have voted to have museums, galleries, operas and the other finer things subsidized.
3. Arts subsidies generate great economic returns in terms of increased economic activity in the form of multiplier effects - ranging from tourism and restaurants to lucrative employment for carpenters and electricians. People flock to New York because of the arts, not because of sandy beaches.
4. Without the elite arts, we don’t have much to be proud of or that distinguishes Canada from the rest of the world, and particularly the USA. The USA actually provides huge subsidies to the arts through its great philanthropy system, paid for indirectly by middle class taxpayers through lower taxes on rich people and the encouragement of large gifts to such organization as the Metropolitan Opera.

How does this relate to Canadian copyright law and - of all things - the current campaign of the League of Canadian Poets against Access Copyright?

The poets need to be careful what they wish for. Access Copyright’s current distribution mechanism, while deeply flawed, essentially guarantees about $500 a year to every published poet - no matter how obscure and unread (and uncopied) that person may be. A more accurate and equitable system - assuming such a thing were even possible - likely would result in much less annual income from reprography for most poets. Unless I am missing something, it would seem doubtful that the principle licensees of Access Coypright, namely schools, universities, and governments do lot of photocopying of Canadian poetry. And what is done is very likely to be fair dealing, post CCH.

This is a perfect example of where subsidies would work better than a large, rich and litigious collective with enormous overhead and legal costs that can’t measure actual entitlement. In fact, it would be much more efficient from an economic standpoint to subsidize Canadian publishers, writers and poets through an expanded and adequately funded Canada Council than through Access Copyright. The Canada Council has a long history of working well through a combination of bureaucratic support and analysis and peer review by juries.

There would be no need to subsidize foreign publishers, writers or poets, because NAFTA has an exception with respect to national treatment for cultural programs and the Canada Council has been around for decades.

In return for more generous and efficient subsidies, the Copyright Act should be amended to lighten up on statutory damages and confirm the legality of copying for research, private study and multiple copies for teaching and classroom purposes, provided that such copying does not go beyond being “fair”. The Supreme Court of Canada has put most, if not all of this, in place already with the landmark CCH v. LSUC decision. The remainder can be found in §107 of the US Coypright Act, so the US can hardly complain about such a provision.

These are ideas worth considering - now - and before another revision bill is introduced.


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