Copyright — Not one of Canada’s admired cultural exports.

7 min readMar 1, 2018

Talking to Canada’s Senate about cultural diplomacy, books, and our country’s embarrassing copyright mess.

by John Degen

(image courtesy me and my little camera)

Recently, I had the honour of appearing before the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade to discuss the state of writing and publishing in Canada and its value as a cultural export. I was impressed with the depth and sensitivity of the investigation by the assembled Senators. Their questions were informed and probing, and they are clearly dedicated to producing a comprehensive study.

Sadly, I was also called upon to discuss the embarrassing state of Canadian copyright law as a protection for our creative professionals.

Canada’s standing as a model for cultural supports and the export of cultural product should be a very good news story. At the moment it’s not, because the blemish of our fatally weakened copyright protection has turned Canada into the progressive world’s example of what not to do if you want to encourage domestic content for your schools and provide wonderful access for students while protecting and encouraging professional creativity.

Here is the official transcript of my presentation, followed by some questions from the committee members. You can also watch a video file of the entire committee meeting at this web-page.

(image courtesy the Senate of Canada)

John Degen, Executive Director, The Writers’ Union of Canada:

Thank you for the invitation to talk with the committee. I come here wearing many hats. I’m the Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada. That’s my day job. But if I did not lead the union’s staff, I would happily be a dues-paying member of my organisation. I am myself a published novelist and poet, and a long-time freelance journalist. Writing is my life. Because of that, writers’ issues are not abstract or theoretical to me in the way they seem to be for many who attempt to influence the application of cultural policy in Canada.

I also chair the International Authors Forum, which is an umbrella organisation for author unions and guilds from around the world. The IAF represents close to 700,000 writers and visual artists, a number that grows each day as more groups crowd under the umbrella. My work with the IAF has cemented for me an understanding that Canadian cultural product is indeed greatly admired, and certain of our cultural policies even more so. I believe Canada has immense potential to influence truly progressive cultural policy outside our borders.

There has really never been a better time for Canada to focus on exporting our culture and the best of our values through our culture. Canada’s authors have captured the world’s attention. Just last year, the wonderful young adult author Cherie Dimaline won both our Governor General’s Literary Award and the U.S. Kirkus Prize for her allegorical dystopian novel The Marrow Thieves. Domestic and international television adaptations of Canadian novels have attracted international awards and viewers in huge numbers, and of course, we are all still riding the wave of attention resulting from Alice Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature.

In recent years, because of Canada’s rising profile and potential, I have been asked to tell the story of Canada’s writing success in Helsinki, Tokyo, Mexico City, Seoul, Melbourne, London, Rome and Beijing. Innovative and dedicated cultural policies and supports are always part of the story that I tell when I give international presentations.

You should know, for instance, that Canada’s Public Lending Right Program, which is a compensation mechanism rewarding Canadian authors for the collection of their work in our public library system, is the envy of the world. Canada is the international model for progressive compensation of authors collected by libraries, and governments everywhere study our program when considering launching or improving their own.

Sadly, these days I can’t get through one of these upbeat pro-Canada international presentations without having to answer a number of worried questions about our country’s negative impact on world copyright standards.

Despite what you may have heard to the contrary, Canada’s current copyright laws are not one of our admired cultural exports. The recent presentation to this committee by another witness, Michael Geist, does not represent the opinions of Canada’s creative sector as I know it. Professor Geist does not speak for us. He speaks for himself from an academic and theoretical perspective that I would suggest contains significant blind spots. I don’t believe his theories or highly selective research have any practical application in the real world of professional arts and culture. Any suggestion that the world admires Canada for its 2012 copyright changes is the result, I believe, of a very selective small sampling of opinions — a tiny classroom of like-minded theorists, perhaps.

Like I said, at the International Authors Forum I listen to the collective voices of close to 700,000 creative professionals and supporters from around the globe. Those voices disagree strongly with the views presented to you here earlier.

Plainly stated, this country’s current copyright policy has dangerously eroded the economic viability of our cultural sector and encouraged an educational environment in which Canadian creativity is not pragmatically valued. This is a terrible export from Canada and is doing immense damage to our position as a world cultural leader. The situation is so negative here that a consortium of school boards and provincial education ministries has recently launched a lawsuit against the copyright collective representing Canada’s authors. At issue is whether tens of millions of dollars worth of our work can be copied and taken by education budget-makers without permission or payment to us.

Let me put that in perspective. At The Writers’ Union of Canada, we administer and support programs that pay this country’s authors to visit schools, collaborate with teachers and present to their students. These programs are so popular and so desperately valued by front-line educators that our funding window for school visits essentially closes as it opens. Having provided that incredible value to our schools, we now find ourselves being sued by their boards and administrations for daring to expect payment for the core of our work, which is the writing itself. There’s really nothing to admire about this scenario. It should and it does embarrass Canada internationally.

Finally, on a good note, you should know that Canada has been selected as nation of honour for the 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair, which is the largest international book, reading and rights fair in the world. It’s kind of a gigantic deal. But this significant honour sets a very tight timeline for us to get our cultural diplomacy house in order because if Canada arrives in Frankfurt in two years with schools still suing authors, I don’t know if any of us wants to attend that party.

We must repair the damage and fix the mess in the middle of Canadian copyright policy and then previously well-funded mechanisms for exporting Canadian culture through our embassies and international connections, such as our PromArts and Trade Routes program, can be rebuilt to lead the work of our cultural diplomacy.

(image courtesy the Senate of Canada)

There followed some questions by Sen. Salma Ataullahjan around the future of print and e-books, which is speculation at which I am always happy to take wild guesses — but I was able to confirm for the assembled Senators that actual print books made up a large portion of the reading material I saw on my morning train to Ottawa. I always count the books displayed by travellers when I travel. It’s a form of spiritual preservation.

(image courtesy the Senate of Canada)

Sen. René Cormier from New Brunswick expressed a great deal of concern about the state of Canadian copyright, and wished to know some specifics about what steps Canada might take to repair the situation. Here’s my response from the transcript:

Mr. Degen:

Thank you for the question. Copyright is a very complicated question. The core issue for us is educational copying, and whether or not we are being paid licence royalties for that copying. Since the change to the act in 2012, at the K-12 and at the post-secondary levels, we have not been paid our collective licensing royalties.

To put that into perspective… Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in 2013, and in that same year our education system stopped paying authors for the hundreds of millions of pages of work that they have been copying in the schools, colleges and universities. Imagine how much more our industry could have grown in the intervening five years with the attention of the world on us because of the Nobel Prize. While our industry does continue to grow, it could have grown a great deal more. That is our core issue.

In terms of our international relationships, it’s time for us to listen rather than to talk. There are much better models for this kind of situation around the world. There are extended collective licensing models in England and throughout Scandinavia that would be very easy for our government to implement within our Copyright Act, and within the regulations surrounding the act. So I think it’s time for Canada to look at models outside of our borders and bring them home.

I thank all the Senators on the Standing Committee for their attention, the Chair, Sen. A. Raynell Andreychuk for her generous welcome, and Senators Patricia Bovey, Victor Oh, and Jane Cordy for their questions.

The return train to Toronto was also filled with readers, both in traditional print and electronic.

John Degen is a novelist and poet. He is Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada, an organisation representing more than 2,000 professional authors in Canada. He is also Chair of the International Authors Forum, which represents close to 700,000 professional authors worldwide. Views expressed are his own.

Read John Degen’s most popular Medium article: 5 Seriously Dumb Myths About Copyright The Media Should Stop Repeating.

© John Degen, 2018




Canadian novelist and poet, Executive Director of The Writers' Union of Canada, believer in the future of the book.