The Cranky Copyright Book

An update on Joe Clark’s upcoming book
on copyright for creators

Lawyers to writers: Drop dead

(2010.03.16) Around 1994, Canadian newspapers, chiefly the Toronto Globe and Mail, began duplicating freelance writers’ newspaper stories in electronic databases. And they charged you to read those articles – either in system access fees or per story or both. All this was illegal, as the Supreme Court later found. (Another wrinkle in the case is now wending its way through the court system.)

This illegal duplication ruined my freelance career at the time and caused immense hardship that still affects me.

Newspapers weren’t done yet. Their duplication of our articles was illegal because it was unauthorized. So newspapers attempted to extort post-facto and perpetual authorization from freelancers. (“Sign this contract giving us all the rights we want or you’ll never write for us again.”) I was the first person to get the Globe and Mail’s freelancer contract in the mail.

Lawyers have their own very special definition of “freelance writer”

After their Supreme Court loss, publishers agreed to a class-action settlement. I submitted a claim for 238 articles, which could net me tens of thousands of dollars. This won’t actually redress the harm caused.

The settlement indisputably covers all those people with day jobs who sold one “Facts & Arguments” piece to the Globe in the mid-’90s, but it is actually about real freelance writers. Lawyers can’t tell these two groups apart. “Not enough” people have applied for settlement money. So guess what? They talked the judge into delaying payments for at least two months. (They were already delayed 16 years and they use a protracted vetting system.)

This will not result in huge numbers of new applicants. Every legitimate freelance writer has already applied. It will merely cause yet more hardship by stringing us out further.

Those one-off “writers” are covered by the settlement and have an unquestioned legal right to their puny share of the proceeds. It is correct on principle to include them in the settlement. But they were never excluded and few will end up applying.

I’m really big on principle. I just want my goddamned money.

Rich lawyers who have no stake in the proceedings are the ones behind this delaying tactic.

So, after two very lean years, I am faced with several threateningly lean months until tens of thousands of my own hard-earned dollars are returned to me.

One way or another, The Cranky Copyright Book is a go

I am going to use part of my settlement money to write, edit, and publish The Cranky Copyright Book. (Even in print, since I now know where that is possible here in town.) I will indeed put my money where my mouth is and publish my own book. I don’t see the incumbent copyright intelligentsia doing anything like this. Nor do I see those one-off “writers” who are eligible for the settlement doing anything similar.

Yes, inevitably more donations are required

To get me from here to there, yes, I need to issue another call for contributions. I assure you this does not leave me feeling unsullied. But I am the kind of person who likes to be able to pay his phone bill, avoid starvation, and buy a bus pass every month.

Do you still doubt this book is important?

If you have any lingering doubts that The Cranky Copyright Book is even necessary, consider this: Twice this month (in two Freakonomics guest posts: first; second) the New York Times has argued that an absence of copyright protection for fashion designs is a good thing because it enables designers’ work to be “copycatted” (QED).

I don’t see them making this argument about, say, writers for the New York Times. They couldn’t – the Times lost its own case against freelancers whose work they’d been pirating. (And, like the Canadians, they lost that case in their Supreme Court.)

So: Nobody’s sticking up for creators here. Somebody’s got to, and that somebody is me. I can’t do it on a budget of zero.


Every time I get discouraged about this (or let’s say half the time, because that is a twice-daily occurrence), I remind myself that I have a small coterie of supporters who actually give a shit about what I’m doing. You have my continued thanks.

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