The above video was posted on YouTube in the hope of stopping an educational exemption in the proposed new copyright bill. Whether or not the exemption is fair-dealing or the video fear-mongering (as some have suggested) isn’t, to me, the real issue; to me, this proposed exemption is just one more example of the myriad ways in which people seem to think that writers should work for free. Consider Ariana Huffington’s insistence that her contributors are happy for the byline — then making a $315M sale to AOL on the backs of those same contributors — and you realise just how big this problem is and the scope of the exploitation. I, like so many of my fellow writers (and other artists), constantly receive requests to work for free, and I would ask the people doing so to STOP AND THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE ASKING. To the guy who wanted me to write his website for free — “You’ll get lots of exposure when my site takes off, so it’ll be good for you” — do you ask your ISP for free web hosting? Do you ask BC Hydro for free electricity to power your computers and keep the lights on? Does Staples give you free office supplies? Do you ask your landlord for free rent? Does Starbucks provide free coffee for you and your staff? Of course not.
Or consider this gem: awhile back I was interviewed for an executive editor job for a proposed festival catalogue, but when I asked how much I would be offering my writers, the CEO — himself poached from New York at a considerable fee — became evasive. When I said I wouldn’t take a position where I was expected to ask my fellow writers to work for free, I didn’t get the job (natch). A few weeks later, the woman who did get the job called to ask if I would write a few articles. And the pay? I queried. “Festival tickets,” was the reply. Seriously. How the hell is a writer supposed to pay the rent with festival tickets?
(And somehow I can’t imagine the printer of the proposed catalogue was asked to donate his services, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the graphic designer — another freelance artist — was asked to design it for free or next to it. For their own list of woes, visit the ever funny Clients From Hell website.)
It’s a nightmare trying to earn a living as a writer in Canada. And now the government wants to legitimize further exploitation with the educational exemption to the Copyright Act. As the speakers in the video point out, no one would dare demand that computer companies or paper manufacturers provide free supplies to schools. No one would demand that teachers and principles and school janitors work for free. I would also add that software can’t be copied and distributed by school boards or universities. Ditto for textbooks. And yet somehow school and universities boards think it acceptable to ask for the right to copy significant portions of literary works and distribute these copies to students.
When you ask a writer to work for free, the message you are sending is that our work has no value. Please people, STOP spreading this pernicious idea, because if you don’t we may all very well stop writing and become accountants. And then where will our culture be? Think about it: no more television or movies, no more books, song lyrics, magazines … and no one to clean up the mess you made trying to write your own website.