Quietly on November 17, 2022, and appearing online this morning, an Order in Council was issued on behalf of Her Excellency the Governor General, on the recommendation of the Minister of Industry and the Minister of Canadian Heritage to fix December 30, 2022 as the day Bill C-19, Division 16 of Part 5 comes into force. What does this all mean? With the passing of Bill C-19 this past June, the Copyright Act was amended to extend the term of copyright for literary, dramatic or musical works and engravings to life of the author plus a period of 70 years following the end of the calendar year in which that author dies. What was unclear at the time of royal assent was WHEN exactly this would come into force — if on or after January 1, 2023, one more year of works would enter the public domain. Unfortunately, we now know that this date has been fixed as December 30, 2022, meaning that no new works will enter the Canadian public domain for the next 20 years.
A whole generation of creative works will remain under copyright. This might seem like a win for the estates of popular, internationally known authors, but what about more obscure Canadian works and creators? With circulation over time often being the indicator of ‘value’, many 20th century works are being deselected from physical library collections. The Internet Archive accepts and happily digitizes these works, then makes them available through Controlled Digital Lending (CDL). These often forgotten works are now destined for another 20 years of restricted access, just as they could have enjoyed another opportunity for a wider audience.
Edward A. McCourt (1907-1972) is an example of just one of these Canadian creators. Raised in Alberta and a graduate of the University of Alberta, Edward went on to be a Rhodes Scholar in 1932. In 1980, Winnifred Bogaards wrote that:
“[H]e recorded over a period of thirty years his particular vision of the prairies, the region of Canada which had irrevocably shaped his own life. In that time he published five novels and forty-three short stories set (with some exceptions among the earliest stories) in Western Canada, three juvenile works based on the Riel Rebellion, a travel book on Saskatchewan, several radio plays adapted from his western stories, The Canadian West in Fiction (the first critical study of the literature of the prairies), and a biography of the 19th century English soldier and adventurer, Sir William F. Butler… “
In Bogaards’ analysis of his work, “Edward McCourt: A Reassessment” published in the journal Studies in Canadian Literature, she notes that while McCourt has suffered in obscurity, he is often cited along with his contemporaries Hugh MacLennan, Robertson Davies and Irving Layton; Canadian literary stars. Incidentally, we will also wait an additional 20 years for their works to enter the public domain. The work of Rebecca Giblin, Jacob Flynn, and Francois Petitjean, looking at ‘What Happens When Books Enter the Public Domain?’ is relevant here. Their study shows concretely and empirically that extending copyright has no benefit to the public at all, and only benefits a very few wealthy, well known estates and companies. This term extension will not encourage the publishers of McCourt’s works to invest in making his writing available to a new generation of readers.
There are currently 14 works by Edward A. McCourt available to borrow on archive.org for both one hour and 14-day loans, as well as sections and chapters via Interlibrary loan. One student or researcher at a time.
To quote Winnifred Bogaards one more time – “He has passed from relative obscurity during his lifetime to almost total oblivion after his death”. This will unfortunately continue to be true for the next 20 years.