And here’s to you, Heather Robertson: Heaven Holds a Place for those who Sue

Some years ago I regularly published freelance op eds in The Globe and Mail. Recently a sitter for our children told me she was excited to see one of my articles appear in her composition text, a book entitled Thinking Through the Essay. On one hand, I was delighted that my work was being used in secondary education. On the other hand, I was deeply insulted that the publisher had not asked my permission in advance or offered any form of compensation. Rather than just getting angry, an opportunity soon presented itself to get even.

Through Access Copyright, I was informed of a class action suit launched by the distinguished Canadian writer Heather Robertson on behalf of other freelance Canadian writers. The suit, Heather Robertson vs. Thomson Canada Ltd et al., alleged that publishers, by automatically including freelancers’ articles in electronic databases, violated the freelancers’ copyright. The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ultimately upheld Robertson’s claim.

The settlement of the suit provided a pool of $5,400,000 for compensating freelance journalists. Based on my own share of the settlement, compensation worked out to approximately $200 per article. Having published over thirty articles that were eligible for inclusion in the suit, my settlement worked out to a substantial and unanticipated addition to this year’s income.

As I understand it, Robertson is pursuing another class action against the Toronto Star and Rogers Publishing. Good on her!

It seems to me that the big issue here is compensation for producers of what the digital world refers to as “content” versus aggregators and distributors of that content. The terms of trade have moved in favor of the latter. So Arianna Huffington gets even richer while paying contributors to HuffPo exactly nothing. The Robertson class action suit shifts the ground in Canada, providing some compensation for freelancers.

I should say, by the way, that I do not get compensated for this blog. I’ve had offers to place advertising on it, but have resisted. I enjoy the immediacy of posting and see the blog as an opportunity to say something about political issues I may be thinking about, to discuss questions unresolved in class, or to post first drafts of parts of what will later become articles or books. But if I choose to write for a newspaper or online publisher, I expect fair compensation. And I appreciate the efforts of Ms. Robertson to secure it.

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