Saturday, June 18, 2011

In a Time of Copyright Reform Writers Need to Talk

Don Meredith’s point of when is the right time to address issues with AC makes sense. If the new bill that replaces Bill C-32 is essentially the same bill as before then it will have big consequences for AC. My read on this is that AC as we know it will simply collapse if such a bill goes through, and that’s one of the scenarios for which writers need to prepare. Now, as never before, writers need information they can trust, they need to share that information and then they need to come to a conclusion. These are very good reasons for signatories coming together at this time in a joint committee. This should have happened years ago when writers agitated for the Friedland Report.

I think the chances of a new bill going through are pretty high. But saying that collapse of the current reprographic mechanism is likely does not mean that it will disappear entirely. (And in case you did not know there are other reprographic mechanisms out there for collective licensing). I am just being practical here, and for the moment, thinking through what it would mean for writers if AC did not survive in its present formulation. We all believe in collective licensing, but we need collective licensing that meets a writer’s needs.

In the likely collapse outcome, AC will not cease to exist. But what will happen is that a remnant of revenue will remain, but it will be so low that the highly paid staff will leave because their salaries – likely in the $150,000 to $300,000 range – as well as benefits, pension contributions and severance can no longer be supported. (If I had been working there when Bill C-32 came out, I would have immediately begun looking for another job - that’s what bureaucrats do).

How much revenue will remain? Well, if we accept, for the moment, AC’s estimate of what it gets from education – it says 85% - that means that 15% of revenue, or $5.06 million will still be coming in. My historical perspective on this is that education revenue is more like 75% of total revenue. So the upper boundary on revenue remaining could be higher, more like $8.4 million. This top level is 221% of what writers received this year under Payback – and so a writer may actually get a higher cheque under the new copyright bill, perhaps even double what you got this year. In this scenario, writers will have to pick up the pieces and re-establish the original purpose of AC, so the promise it held for us may actually occur for the first time.

In the beginning, the reprography bylaws were drafted in the belief that only writers would be part of the program – visit Flora MacDonald’s speeches in Hansard and make your own judgement. A decision was made early by writers that the cultural publishers, essentially the regional presses that publish our non-fiction, fiction and poetry, would be let into the system to share with us. But now, when our baseline payment of $175 is less than a copyright lawyer makes in an hour, we creators need to come together, talk over what will be done to resolve the situation and make it happen.

You should know that there is quite a lot of off operating budget money that has not been distributed. The balance sheet shows $104.2 million in assets – we would like this protected. Then there is the invested money - between $24 and $63.7 million - that we would like distributed. And there is the Tariff under appeal that AC has billed and thus counts as an asset, under Accounts Receivable in its financial statement as $56.9 million (Footnote 4). In addition, there is the Cultural Fund of $4.5 million. I was not interested in such a fund, and I would like that money returned. It represents more than doubling the payment you received last year.

So, there are many subjects that writers need to talk over, and to do this we need some specialized advice. We have always needed legal and financial advice because we are volunteers who work late nights to figure reprography things out after our day jobs have ended. What is required is a pot of money created for us at AC so that we can seek arms-length, independent advice regarding the many questions that will come out of our joint committee of signatories. Writers need to think through many questions: do we want the publishers in with us? Or do we want our money separate, as is done in the UK, and is included as so in the TWUC motion? There are many other subjects that writers need to talk about a great deal to establish where we will go.

Regarding the invested money between $24 million and $63.7 million, I will be asking an accountant to give me his best estimate of that money. When I have it, then I will let writers know. This is another example that suggests writers need advice, so it will inform the talks we have with one another. Writers have always needed some independent advice: we need a lawyer and an accountant. People who work for us and give advice from the perspective of a writer.

We tend to forget that law is not about truth. Law is about making your best argument. What we have had in AC is lawyers who give advice mainly for the interests of the large educational publishers. Writers don’t need money spent on this, as many writers have been reduced to fee for service, and thus lost their copyright due to the disparity of power between an educational publisher and a writer. We need the advice of some technical people and should have had it from the beginning in 1988.

One of the scenarios to be talked over, when writers are properly informed, is to consider what we want in return for our support for AC. As mentioned in the TWUC motion, writers want: more money, more control and lower administrative costs. We want to move toward 50% of revenue. It makes a lot of sense to move right now, and to offer our support to the present reprographic mechanism in return for moving from the very small 11.3% of revenue we currently receive. The new bill represents a big change. And now is the best time to secure 50%, when AC needs our support. We can all support that kind of collective licensing.

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