Columns

A small price to pay

Charles Gordon September 13 1999
Columns

A small price to pay

Charles Gordon September 13 1999

A small price to pay

Columns

Charles Gordon

Sometimes we are so busy being consumers that we are in danger of forgetting how to be citizens. It is all too obvious how many locally owned Canadian businesses, large and small, have been forced into oblivion by consumers driving to the latest hot new discount operation. Empty storefronts that once held independent businesses clutter the downtowns, while big-box monstrosities, many of them foreign-owned, thrive on the outskirts of town. Not many of us are bothered by it, at least not yet. As Eatons began its slide into the retail graveyard, the radio news featured interviews with shoppers picking over the stock for bargains. Their common emotion was annoyance—that the dying stores prices had not been slashed enough.

A suspicious and relentlessly vigilant bunch of consumers we are, ready to defend to the death our right to a bargain. You will know, if you have travelled abroad, how cheap our food is, compared with the rest of the world. Yet farmers, notorious complainers though they may be, cant hold a candle to consumers, when the price of bread or milk inches up a notch.

You will remember, as some Canadians begin to mutter about being forced to pay 15 cents a month for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, that the most emotional debate of the past decade was over the cost of new cable TV channels, and the way we were billed for them. Such a level of wrath was never reached in the height of the Meech Lake debates. And you may recall, if you have been politically conscious for a couple of generations, that it was a proposed tax on gasoline, another commodity for which we pay relatively little, that buried the short-lived Joe Clark government in the 1980 election.

It is this that gives cause to fear for the survival of a plan to tax blank cassette tapes and compact discs. The aim of the tax is extremely worthy—to support Canadian songwriters and recording artists. The rationale for the tax is eminently reasonable—the work of those artists is being distributed without compensation by those who duplicate it. The urgency of the situation grows—suddenly, the availability of so-called CD-burners makes it possible for high-quality copies of CDs to be made, and conceivably sold. Without the people responsible for the music receiving a dime, their work can be recorded and distributed for fun and/or profit. Without the protection of patent law, inventors and manufacturers would never prosper, and without the protection of copyright, artists cannot support themselves by their work,

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.

But the advance of technology makes it all too easy for that copyright to be flouted. And the technology marches on. The impact of the CD-burner may be less than that of the Internet, over which music can be transmitted and downloaded.

Hence the proposed levy, which is already in place in 25 countries, notably in Europe. The notion should not be entirely foreign to us. We already have Public Lending Right, a system put into place in 1986 to compensate authors for the circulation of their books by public libraries. The idea was not to stop the circulation, nor was it to force library members to pay. Instead, a fund was established, out of which authors received a payment that, while not substantial for most, at least demonstrated the principle that something was owed them for their work.

Since it is impossible to stop home taping, the practice has been made legal and a levy on the raw materials—that is, blank cassettes and CDs—is used to create a fund to pay artists whose work is taken. Hearings of the Canadian Copyright Board are going on now, and it is too soon to know all the details of the distribution of those revenues, but it is reasonable to hope that not all of the money will go into the hands of those artists who are already well-rewarded for their efforts. Some of it should go to support new artists and struggling older ones, just as a portion of cable TV revenues goes into new program development.

Predictably, in this anti-tax age, there is opposition. Some of the arguments are easy to combat, such as the one that not everyone who buys blank cassettes is using them to tape music. Some buyers are taping sermons and whatnot. That’s true, and it is also true that some of the people who buy alcoholic beverages are using them for cooking rather than

drinking. They still pay the tax. Further, proposals have been made 11 by the .1 composers ____________~ and H publishers that would n o allow 11 rw X T exPV_ emptions for certain affected groups. Still, we are already hearing a threat that is all too commonly heard in this country: if the levy on blank cassettes goes ahead, consumers will charge across the border in droves and stock up there. Against that is a poll cited by the music industry and quoted in The Globe and Mail. It says 60 per cent of Canadians think adding a levy of as much as $1.50 to the average $2 cost of a blank tape would be fair. It would be, too, considering the value of what that tape will contain after it has been used. Beyond that question of economic fairness is a broader one: even in this consumer age, nothing is free; nor should it be. If we want to have our own musicians, composers and recording artists, we must be prepared to pay them.