Can Canada’s artis­tic mid­dle class be saved?

Canada should adopt pend­ing Euro­pean leg­is­la­tion which gives artists a share in the dig­i­tal econ­omy for their work

Waterloo Region Record - - Arts & Life - TONY WONG Tony Wong is the Star’s tele­vi­sion critic based in Toronto. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @tony­d­wong

Don­ald Quan is one of Canada’s most suc­cess­ful com­posers that you’ve likely never heard of. But you know his work.

Ev­ery time CBC Ra­dio’s Metro Morn­ing theme song gets you mov­ing in the wee hours, you can thank Quan. The artist has cre­ated and scored themes for dozens of films and tele­vi­sion shows such as Relic Hunter and Mu­tant X. He was also a band mem­ber for 1980s Cana­dian rock groups such as Light­house and Eye Eye.

A stroke while per­form­ing on stage at the Kitch­ener Blues Fest a decade ago has slowed him down. He’s health­ier now and back cre­at­ing mu­sic, but he’s also sup­ported by roy­al­ties from his ear­lier body of work.

But he re­al­izes that’s not the case with the vast ma­jor­ity of mu­si­cians and cre­ators in Canada. And he blames what he calls an­ti­quated copy­right leg­is­la­tion that has cre­ated an im­pov­er­ish­ment of the creative com­mu­nity.

“I don’t know how you would make a liv­ing to­day as a young com­poser or writer,” says Quan. “They’re writ­ing for free and putting their ma­te­rial on so­cial me­dia and in some cases don’t ex­pect to be com­pen­sated. It’s the new nor­mal and that shouldn’t be. That re­ally has to change.”

Pro­posed leg­is­la­tion by Euro­pean Union law­mak­ers has given Quan and many in Canada’s creative com­mu­nity hope in the dig­i­tal age.

Film and tele­vi­sion pro­duc­ers, mu­si­cians and writ­ers could stand to gain bil­lions in Europe af­ter copy­right changes that would force big tech com­pa­nies such as Face­book and Google to share more rev­enue with cre­ators, and to fil­ter out copy­righted con­tent. Plat­forms such as YouTube or Face­book would re­quire li­cences to play copy­righted con­tent, which would po­ten­tially give artists a new rev­enue stream for their work. Cur­rently, copy­righted work is widely avail­able on­line with­out con­sent of the artist, or, such as in the case of mu­sic videos broad­cast on YouTube, with min­i­mal com­pen­sa­tion.

“The re­al­ity is a lot of the prof­its go to a few su­per tech houses in Sil­i­con Val­ley and the re­sult is you lose en­tire seg­ments of the cul­tural cre­ation pop­u­la­tion,” says John De­gen, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of The Writ­ers’ Union of Canada and chair of the In­ter­na­tional Au­thors Fo­rum. “You end up ei­ther with su­per­star au­thors, or a vast un­der­class want­ing to be su­per­stars and no mid­dle class. It’s been com­pletely hol­lowed out.”

A study by the writ­ers’ union says that a Cana­dian au­thor’s av­er­age an­nual in­come from writ­ing is just $9,380, a drop of 27 per cent from a decade ago when it was $12,879. The low earn­ings rep­re­sent what the union calls a “cul­tural emer­gency.”

“There has never been a greater in­ter­est in con­tent. There are more read­ers than ever. But no­body’s re­ally mak­ing any money off it ex­cept the ag­gre­ga­tors and the plat­forms who are keep­ing all the profit,” ar­gues De­gen, who is also a novelist and poet.

The con­tro­ver­sial Euro­pean de­ci­sion comes at a cru­cial time: Canada is mod­ern­iz­ing its own Copy­right Act, and politi­cians are look­ing closely at other ju­ris­dic­tions for a road map. Two par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tees are cur­rently study­ing the is­sue.

“We have been watch­ing what’s been hap­pen­ing in Europe very closely and we are very op­ti­mistic that this is the change we can see hap­pen­ing on a world­wide ba­sis,” says Mar­garet McGuf­fin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cana­dian Mu­sic Pub­lish­ers As­so­ci­a­tion. “At the end of the day it’s about song­writ­ers and cre­ators be­ing able to have a ba­sic ex­is­tence in the dig­i­tal age.”

But crit­ics, in­clud­ing some artists, worry the Euro­pean ver­sion will set a stage for mass and ar­bi­trary cen­sor­ship of the in­ter­net, cre­at­ing fil­ters that will block le­git­i­mate users.

“To­day’s Copy­right Di­rec­tive vote not only makes life harder for cre­ators, hand­ing a larger share of their in­comes to Big Con­tent and Big Tech — it makes life harder for all of us,” ar­gues Cana­dian science fic­tion writer and pop­u­lar blog­ger Cory Doc­torow. The de­ci­sion in Europe sets the stage for “mass, au­to­mated sur­veil­lance and ar­bi­trary cen­sor­ship of the in­ter­net.”

But Cana­dian artist groups say that kind of ar­gu­ment amounts to fear mon­ger­ing.

“I think a lot of peo­ple, in­clud­ing tech com­pa­nies, are hid­ing be­hind these ar­gu­ments of cen­sor­ship. But I think the real re­al­ity is that they sim­ply don’t want to pay artists what they are worth,” says McGuf­fin.

“The re­sis­tance isn’t wrapped up in fears of cen­sor­ship. It’s fears of lost profit. It’s just very prof­itable not to have re­spon­si­bil­ity over what hap­pens on your plat­form,” says writ­ers’ union di­rec­tor De­gen.

An­other con­tro­ver­sial part of the Euro­pean leg­is­la­tion is a so-called “link tax” that would charge sites such as Twit­ter a fee for us­ing parts of ar­ti­cles and link­ing to news sites.

“Pro­fes­sional news cov­er­age has value. Peo­ple are pay­ing for the New York Times and the Toronto Star. The pay­wall has proven that,” says De­gen.

“The idea is that (tech com­pa­nies) are mak­ing a lot of money from tak­ing snippets of news. And if that’s the case some of that should go back to the cre­ator.”

Quan, mean­while, be­lieves that the Euro­pean ex­am­ple is “100 per cent on the right track.”

“I think chang­ing the cul­ture and un­der­stand­ing of the creative process is im­por­tant and you’re see­ing that hap­pen in Europe,” says Quan.

“But I re­ally think it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore the rest of the world catches up to what is ba­si­cally an ap­peal to a sense of fair­ness.”


A Cana­dian writer’s av­er­age an­nual in­come is just $9,380, a drop of 27 per cent from a decade ago. Some want all me­dia com­pa­nies to pay when mu­sic, lit­er­a­ture, news writ­ing and other me­dia con­tent is taken and used.

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