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
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.