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Authors, libraries at odds over copyright law change

While usually on the same page, some authors and librarians have opposing views on the Canadian government's recent 20-year extension of copyright protection.
In order to meet trade agreement obligations, the Canadian government has extended the length of copyright protection by 20 years, to the praise and dismay of many. FILE/Photo

Although they're used to being on the same page, authors and librarians say they have opposing views of the Canadian government's recent 20-year extension of copyright protection.

Effective Jan. 1, 2023, the federal government extended the length of copyright protection to 70 years after an author's death, in accordance with the Canada-United States-Mexico trade agreement. Prior to this, copyright on books, music, plays, and other artistic works was valid in Canada until 50 years after the author's death, after which the work would enter the public domain.

Once an artistic work is in the public domain, anybody is able to use it to create something new. Well-known examples include the 2013 film Frozen, which is based on Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale The Snow Queen; the 2010 film Tangled, based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Rapunzel; and the 1998 film A Bug's Life, based on Aesop's Fables.

The 20-year extension, which is not retroactive, means no additional artistic work will enter the public domain until 2043. Without the extension, works by authors such as Irish poet and novelist Cecil Day-Lewis and American literary critic, playwright, and nonfiction writer Edmund Wilson would have entered the public domain this year.

Local author Corinne Jeffery says the extension is reassurance the financial value and work she puts into her books is protected. Jeffery has had five books published over the past 11 years, including her most recent novel, The Reluctant Author.

"Writing is hard work," Jeffery said. "In addition to writing [a] book — some of my books are very long — to sit down and then re-read, edit, and proof those long books takes a great deal of time and energy."

"I wouldn't want them in the public domain and have somebody else using them."

While copyright law ensures authors are commercially protected, it provides a unique set of challenges for librarians.

University of Alberta copyright librarian and researcher Amanda Wakaruk says the 20-year extension may harm the ability of academic and museum libraries to preserve and archive artistic works.

"Published works of course are incredibly important — published works across all formats, not just books — but it doesn't take very long before published works cease to be commercially available," Wakaruk said. "Within about 10 years, it's uncommon to be able to find the published work from the publisher, so libraries act as stewards and provide people with access to work when they're no longer commercially available."

"Over the decades, that can become more and more difficult, and that was already difficult with a copyright term of 50 years past the life of the creator," Wakaruk said, adding the extension could increase the number of "orphaned" works.

An orphaned work, Wakaruk said, is an artistic work for which it's "almost impossible" to track down the copyright holder. 

"It becomes very difficult to even obtain the rights to reproduce and share something the longer it's protected by copyright," she said. 

For public libraries, the copyright extension will have little to no impact, according to Peter Bailey, the CEO of St. Albert Public Library (SAPL).

"For SAPL, the impact is negligible," Bailey said in an email. "We're a popular materials library, focused more on getting St. Albertans the best new stuff than preserving the best old stuff."

"It isn't a primary role for SAPL to preserve materials until they enter the public domain — at 50 years past the author's lifetime, or now, 70 years past — [but] SAPL does exist in a regional ecosystem with much larger libraries that do have a preservation role," he said.

"In terms of SAPL's role writ large, as a participant in preserving books and the ideas therein, I think the 20-year extension is not helpful and may hinder access to ideas and information. If libraries are expected to preserve books for a century or more to when the books enter the public domain, libraries will need more support in this role."

Jeffery said she's only had one instance of needing to navigate copyright law for her books. 

In the first draft of her 2018 book called Lords and Lepers, Jeffery said she included the lyrics of a song from the musical Sound of Music. The song, written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, was still protected by copyright despite the deaths of Rodgers in 1979, and Hammerstein II in 1960.

Rather than seeking permission from the copyright holders to print the entirety of the song's lyrics, Jeffery used the maximum amount allowed under the "Fair Dealing" section of the Canadian Copyright Act, which is 10 per cent.

Under the fair dealing provision, short excerpts of copyright protected works can be reproduced without needing to pay royalties or gain permission from the rights holder. 

"I reduced it quite dramatically to a couple of lines, which is allowable," Jeffery said. She considered seeking permission from the rights holder, but it would have delayed the release of the book.

"I picked a very poignant couple of lines and it got the point across, and most people knew that song anyway," she said.

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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