Rethinking out loud about Margaret Atwood

Earlier this week I listenedto (MP3) an interview of Margaret Atwood by Spartan YouthRadio reporter Madeline Lemire. I found I agreed with someof the views of Ms. Atwood. This surprised me because I was aware ofsome of her views on Copyright, and because of this I had becomewilfully ignorant of her work. I did not want to financially supportsomeone I felt was a political opponent.

A typical quote from Ms.Atwood on Copyright can be found in ExcessCopyright articles such as Speakingof Smear Campaigns and MoreMargaret Atwood on Copyright.

Ms. Atwood isquoted as having stated the following as part of her testimony in1996 to the Parliamentary Committee that produced dreadfulamendments to that years Copyright Bill C-32.

“In conclusion,I want to emphasis that writers are small business people and ourcopyrights are often our only real assets. Exceptions to copyrightare an expropriation of our property against our will. If copyrightswere cars, this would be car theft.”


I strongly disagree with thisstatement for two key reasons. First, I document in the articleJeffersonDebate: A Godwin's law for copyright discussionswhy I reject the analogy of copyright to tangible property. Thisanalogy confuses people as to what is owned, and the effect ofinfringement or changes in copyright law to what is owned. Copyrightinfringement is at its worst an unlawful reduction of the propertyvalue of a copyright, and changing the contours of copyright such aslimitations or exceptions also only changes the property value of acopyright. It does not expropriate anything, and there is nothingthat can be reasonably considered theft in either copyright reform orcopyright infringement.

Secondly, this statement byMs. Atwood misrepresents the fact that most exceptions to copyrightare for the benefit of authors trying to create or receive economicvalue from new works. In the vast majority of cases these limits donot reduce the value of the copyright at all. Limits to pastcopyright must exist if new creative works are to be possible. Copyright is a balance between the interests of past creators and theinterests of new creators, and it is simply wrong to suggest thattilting the balance too far in favor of past creators is of benefitto authors.

The strongest views I have inthe copyright debate aren't really about copyright at all, but aboutsome of the alleged “solutions” to copyright infringement. The two areas come under the title of “circumvention oftechnological measures” or “ISP liability”, but areabout who sets the rules that communications technology will obey. They don't protect copyright, but instead replace copyright as theprimary rule-making and rule-enforcing infrastructure.

The January10 & 12'th episode of CBC's Spark included adescription of TheCompanions Project. From their website they say that,”This will be an agent or 'presence' that stays with the userfor long periods of time, developing a relationship and 'knowing' itsowners preferences and wishes.”

After listening to the episodeI posted the following as a comment.


I have cometo believe that the two most important questions to ask about anydigital technology are: is the device locked, and who holds the keys.

If the owner holds the keys, this is a neatprosthetic device that serves both as companion and external memoryfor people. In this context I would be happy to recommend it for aparent or grandparent. I would be excited to have stories shared withme that the parent/grandparent wouldn't think I would be interestedenough to tell me without the help of this companion.

Ifsomeone else holds the keys, this is a turncoat fake-friend who willrelay the secrets it learns to its real masters who might use thisintimate knowledge to scam the user out of their life savings (orworse). In this context I would do anything I possibly could toprotect my parents and grandparents from such devices.

Asan author in a few genres that include Dystopian fiction, I believeMs. Atwood would be quite able to write about the social and otherproblems where it is someone (government or private sector doesn'tmatter, and sometimes are interchanged in Dystopian fiction) otherthan the person who possesses technology that controls thetechnology.

This isn't the case for allauthors. There are authors, including with some of the writersgroups Ms. Atwood has represented in the past, who support the 1996WIPO treaties and the “Intellectual Property Rights Enforcementin the Digital Environment” sections of ACTA (Orwelliandouble-speak titled Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement). Theseprovisions call for revoking citizen control over (See: Protectingproperty rights in a digital world if you haven'tread it already).

These foreign-lock supportershave told me that if I don't like content that is tied toforeign-locked technology, and don't like foreign-locked devices,that I can just not buy them. This suggestion is about asreasonable as telling someone who doesn't like the laws of thecountry that they are a citizen of that they can just move (the richand powerful have that choice, most people do not). This is madeworse in this case as these extremists want to export their views onlocked technology globally.

Listening to the interview ofMs. Atwood, I couldn't help but wonder what she would think of aworld where the primary means of communication and creativity wasunder foreign lock and key. Unlike some authors who seem quite finewith the idea of returning to their typewriters, I wonder if shewould understand the larger social and political implications.

I notice that a number of herbooks are availableas unlocked (IE: DRM-free) audio books on eMusic. I planto purchase her latest (The Year of the Flood) as my next eMusicaudio-book download. Was making this available something herpublisher did, or something that she is aware of and supports?

I've not yet met Ms. Atwood,but I am now very curious about what she thinks about what ishappening in technology law, and the threats to authors and othercreative people being justified in the name of authors — or if shehas yet been made aware.

Russell McOrmond is a self employed consultant,policy coordinator for CLUE:Canada's Association for Free/Libre and Open Source Software,co-coordinator for Getting Open Source Logic INto Governments (GOSLING),and host for DigitalCopyright Canada.

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