Skip to content

All content on this site (except comments) is Copyright (C) Don H. Meredith, unless otherwise stated.

A Cautionary Copyright Tale

[Note: this piece was first published in the January/February 2016 Outdoor Writers of Canada newsletter, Inside Outdoors.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

There is a widely held belief that whatever is posted on the World Wide Web is free for use by anyone. The thinking goes something like this: because I can download text and images to my computer, I possess them and can use those materials to make my own creations and post them on the web or otherwise publish them. As we all know (or should know), nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, you have the right to download, view and print anything on the web to which you have the right of access, as long as it is for your own personal use. However, if you copy something (e.g., an interesting article) and send it as a PDF to a friend (for example), technically you’re breaking copyright law, unless of course you received a licence to do so from the copyright holder. (On the other hand, if you just send that friend the URL [Internet address] of the site where you got the information, you’re O.K.) Now chances are slim that a content owner would get upset about you passing some information he or she posted on the web to someone else for their personal use. But where it gets dicey, inviting legal action, is if you or the person you sent the material to decides to use all or some of it for commercial purposes, such as to illustrate an article you want to sell or post on the web, promote a business on the web (e.g., a writer’s website) or in any other way claim it as your own.

A case in point is that of a freelance marketing specialist who hired a web designer to create a website for his business (I’ve changed some details to protect identities). The designer used some of her client’s own photos but also used some from a travel website for whom the client had done some work. The new website was published and a few months later the client, who now owned the website, received a notice from a lawyer demanding $7000 for illegally using one of the images. It turned out the rights to the image were held by a photo stock agency that sold licenses for use of its images. The freelancer immediately took down the image in question and contacted the lawyer and the agency. After some negotiations, he was able to reduce the penalty to $1500, still way too much for his small business.

Now you could say that the marketing specialist should have known better, should have questioned the choices made by his website developer, and you would be right. But oversights do occur and people do make mistakes. The question in my mind is whether there was an agreement between the two that specified who would be responsible for obtaining licensing agreements for third-party materials used on the website.

You could also question the extreme penalty demanded by the stock agency. Lawyers who have defended similar cases report that the initial penalty is a scare tactic to get the person to come-to-heel. Court judgments in such copyright infringement cases have not exacted anything near what was initially asked with regard to a single infringement. As such, it is questionable the agency would take the matter to court. Some lawyers have advised in such cases that the person take the offending piece down, apologize, make a reasonable offer and, if that is not accepted, wait it out—endure the phone calls and threats—and the issue should eventually go away (the Canadian Copyright Act specifies that copyright holders have three years to take legal action after hearing of an infringement). But do you want to take the risk?

Copyright Trolls…?
As it turns out there are a few photo stock agencies that make considerable money from searching the web for illegal use of their photographs. Many of these businesses have fallen on hard times in the last few years because fewer clients are using their services. As a result they are selling the rights to photos for a lot less than they used to. And with many people believing that everything on the web is free, it’s not hard to understand why hunting down copyright infringers might fit into business models.

However, it appears that some of these businesses are using threatened litigation as the main source of income, and hence have earned the name “copyright trolls.” As described in an article on the website of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic , copyright trolls “use a ‘scattershot’ approach to litigation.” They search sites for offending material and have their lawyers issue a large number of demand letters in hope a substantial number of the potential defendants will agree to a settlement rather than go to trial. “Trolls know that it is cheaper to settle than to fight, and small businesses with an eye to the bottom line will take the most cost-effect route out of the mess.”

How to Avoid “the Mess”
Obviously, the best way to avoid being targeted by copyright trolls is to ensure you do not use material to which you do not have the copyright or licence to use. But as I said before, stuff happens, especially if you’ve hired someone to create something for you, like a website. Designers often pull materials off the web, including design formats, etc., to make interesting websites. This is O.K. as long as they have obtained the right to use the material as specified in a licence agreement. Ensure you have a written agreement with the designer that specifies he will acquire the associated licences and will provide you with copies of such agreements. It’s important to get written agreements concerning your right to use material you did not create.

What if a Troll Targets Me?
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The following is what I’ve gleaned from my research on the topic:

  1. Determine they are correct. Did you or someone else create the offending image/text? If the latter, do you have a licence to use it?
  2. Does the offended company/individual actually hold the copyright or have an exclusive licence to use the material? Demand to see licence agreements that show the company’s interest. Trolls sometimes don’t have a legal interest in the material and are trying to scam you.
  3. If you posted something you shouldn’t have and you’re dealing with the legitimate holder of the copyright or exclusive licence, take the offending piece down, apologize and negotiate a lower penalty. Do your research. Determine what the company charges those who license their material. Courts will often use this information as a base to assign a penalty (e.g., 2 to 5 times the licence fee). An informed negotiator should be able to get the best deal.
  4. If the negotiated penalty still seems out of line, consider ignoring the whole thing. If you are forced to go to court, you should receive a settlement lower than what’s being demanded. However, as a lawyer once advised me: “It’s always best to settle out of court. If you go to trial, logic goes out the window and anything can happen.” Of course, the other factor to consider is the legal fee if you hire a lawyer.

How do I Protect MY Content from being Used Illegally?
Whether or not you use a stock photo agency, if you yourself post photographic and other content you’ve created on the web and you don’t want people stealing it, you need to take some basic steps.

  1. Mark all your material with a copyright notice. A simple notice at the beginning of an article, such as “Copyright © 2016 Joe Writer” lets people know you are serious about protecting your rights in the piece (in Canada, you do not need to register your copyright in a piece [although you can]. The fact you are the creator is enough, as long as you can prove it). A copyright stamp or watermark on your photos (routines available in some photo-editing software) similarly notifies viewers of your rights (indeed, photo stock agencies often use watermarks in the images they display on their websites). These steps won’t stop people copying your work but they will ensure that those people who might be thinking of using your material cannot claim they did not know of your copyright.
  2. In terms of photographs/videos to be posted, dumb them down. Don’t post the images as they came from the camera! Use photo-editing software to reduce the pixel density of the photo to 72 dpi (dots/inch, the web standard) for example, and keep the size of the photo relatively small (e.g., <6” wide). Do this before you stamp or watermark your photo. Reducing pixel density makes your images useless to those who might want to use them in a larger format.
  3. Every month or so, put each of your name, title/captions and URLs of your articles/photos/videos into a search engine. Do the same with If you find an offending site, contact the owners and politely inform them they have violated your copyright. Demand they take the offending piece down and perhaps suggest a fee for its use (in cases of plagiarism, taking the piece down is the minimum they should do). If you wish to do more, you should contact a copyright lawyer. Access Copyright might be able to help you here.

Note: Social Media Sites
If you post photos and text on social media sites, such as Facebook, you have assigned certain licensing rights to the owners of those sites (check your user agreement; yes, the one few people actually read). For example, on Facebook the company can use any posting for whatever purpose they deem appropriate (e.g., advertising their services), and of course your “friends” can repost your material, where others you don’t know can see and use it as they see fit. These are usually not exclusive rights, but you should be aware of them.

Comments are always welcome (below).

The Ever Changing Digital Landscape

[Note: this piece was first published in the September/October 2015 Outdoor Writers of Canada newsletter, Inside Outdoors.]

Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

It’s amazing how things have changed over my career in this business. When I started back in the 1970s, I wrote in longhand on foolscap and typed my later drafts on a heavy, manual, desk typewriter that I soon replaced with a portable electric model. I slowly learned to type my first drafts on the typewriter. Of course, in those days when you got an edited manuscript back from a publisher, you had to retype the whole thing when you revised it—risking the inevitable typographic errors. And once your manuscript was accepted, a typesetter had to retype the whole thing yet again. So, you were provided a proof to edit to ensure your manuscript was entered correctly. It was a lot of work for all parties that you just accepted as the way things were done.

Of course, personal computers and word processing changed all that. I was an early adopter, purchasing an Apple II+ back in 1981 with the proceeds of a contract. Although word processing speeded the editing and revising process, I still had to print my drafts and send them by postal mail to publishers, most of whom in those days were reluctant to adopt the new digital technology for economic reasons—retooling being a large capital investment.

But adopt they eventually did, and then along came the Internet and e-mail in the 1990s. In a few short years the way we communicated with each other changed. No longer did we have to wait for postal mail to return a physical manuscript. Its digital version could be delivered right to the machine on which it was written in the first place. Also gone was having to completely retype each draft.

Nikon F1

The Nikon F1 was one of the first cameras to have “through-the-lens” light metering.

Digital photography came along a little more slowly. Back in the 1970s I was using a Nikon F1 Single Lens Reflex (SLR) film camera with an assortment of lenses that I had acquired over the years. The big advantage of this camera over older models was that it had a through-the-lens light metre system that allowed you to adjust exposure while you looked at the light-metre needle in the viewfinder (instead of looking at a external light metre and adjusting exposure before raising the camera). The camera took great photos, but of course you didn’t know how good they were until the film returned from the developer. Over the years, I upgraded the camera as new electronic features came along, such as auto-focusing and auto-exposure.

Then in the early 1990s I attended a photographic workshop in Edmonton sponsored by some major players in the industry. Film was still the way things were done but the workshop had a session on how some publishers were digitizing film images to enhance the printing process. Fujifilm, however, demonstrated a 35 mm SLR camera that had been outfitted with a digital sensor, bypassing the film stage all together and displaying the camera’s image on a TV screen. The Fujifilm representative stated that despite its name, his company had decided to hasten the obsolescence of film, as they believed digital would soon rule the photographic world. Although everyone was amazed with what they saw, most of us did not realize how fast digital was indeed coming. Within a few years, digital cameras flooded the market. Most of the early versions were point-and-shoots, but the SLR camera quickly caught up.

Seeing the writing on the wall, I jumped when I found Nikon had a digital SLR (or DSLR) model within my price range that would accept my film camera lenses. However, once again, publishers were slow to catch up. At an OWC regional meeting I attended in Edmonton, I remember someone asking a publisher how he wished photographers to send him images. He stated he would not accept digital, that he would only accept traditional color slides as he always had. He felt digital still had a long way to go to compete with film. I looked around the room and saw many people shaking their heads, knowing the publisher’s position was retrograde. But I also realized the publisher was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He had a significant investment in the old technology, and didn’t want to risk the acquisition of something new that might not be that great. Indeed, early digital images were inferior to those on film, not matching film’s color subtlety or detail. But what this particular publisher did not realize was that digital had already caught up and was passing film in quality and versatility. Soon all photographers and publishers had adopted the new technology in order to keep pace with each other.

And of course, the race to digital didn’t stop there. Nowadays, smart phones and tablets have word processing abilities and cameras that can take both stills and video. Indeed, the cameras and screens in these devices have improved with each new version, making it possible to take some quality photos and videos with a device that can be carried in a shirt pocket. The popularity and portability of these devices have put them into the hands of just about everyone, and that has changed the landscape of who and how photos and videos are taken, published, viewed and paid for.

Recently I replaced my aging and battered DSLR with an Olympus E-M5 model. It is hard to call this camera single-lens-reflex anymore. What made SLRs and DSLRs “reflex” cameras was the internal mirror that reflexed (i.e., reflected) the lens image up to the viewfinder prior to exposure so the operator could see the image exactly as it would appear in the photo. As the shutter button was pressed the mirror flipped up so the image would be cast on the film or sensor. In the M5 the mirror is gone. What you see in the viewfinder is the electronic image the sensor “sees”. Of course some digital point-and-shoots and camcorders have been doing this for a few years, but again SLRs are catching up or indeed reinventing themselves.

Another feature that sold me on this camera was its image-stabilization system based in the camera body. Most other such systems in DSLRs are placed in individual lenses, greatly increasing their costs. This is the first I have used a stabilization system and I am totally sold on it. I have made some hand-held photographs of birds at some distance using a 300 mm (film equivalent) telephoto lens and the images have been razor sharp—a condition I could only obtain previously using a tripod.

Among the other new features in this digital camera is its use of Wi-Fi to access the Internet. Yes, I can send photos directly from the camera to my smartphone, tablet or indeed my home computer, where I can view in detail and show friends. That’s about as far away from having to wait for the photos to be returned from a film developer as you can get.

Yes, the digital landscape is constantly changing and it can be a challenge to keep up with it all, especially for old guys like me who tend to appreciate old things that work well for a long time. However, if we want to take advantage of the new business opportunities this technology is providing, we need to at least keep abreast of what is happening, and be prepared to take leaps of faith when they feel appropriate. For now, I’ll keep climbing the steep learning curves ahead of me.

Comments are always welcome (below).

What’s in a Title?

[Note: this piece was first published in the March/April 2015 Outdoor Writers of Canada newsletter, Inside Outdoors.]

Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

At first glance, you might think creating the title for an article, book, video or blog post is a simple thing: just describe what your piece is about in as few words as possible. However, when you consider the role of a title in the promotion of your piece, some further thought is called for.

Now it’s true that writers often don’t have control over what the final title of a piece will be (unless you’re publishing your own material). The publisher/editor has the last word. Then why spend much time on a title when chances are the publisher is going to change it anyway?

Titles are all about marketing, convincing someone to buy what you have for sale. Just like a reader, your publisher will determine from your title whether your story is worth a look among the many stories coming “over the transom.” Publishers also don’t have a lot of time, and if you picked a good title, they just might go with it. As well, if a magazine publisher really likes your title, he just might put it on the front cover, further increasing your piece’s exposure. So, deciding what title is best is worth the investment in time.

What Should a Title Do?
English-language scholars studying such things conclude a title should do four things if it’s going to be effective. It should:
1. Catch the interest of the reader;
2. Provide a hint of what the piece is about;
3. Echo the tone of the piece—e.g., serious, humorous, a how-to; and
4. Contain key words that make the piece easy to find in an Internet search.

The Hook
We’ve all heard the old saw about hooking your reader in the first sentence or paragraph of a story, or chances are he or she will move on to the next piece. But how do you ensure he will read that first paragraph? The title tells a reader whether the first paragraph is worth a look.

Content and Audience
Knowing your audience is fundamental to any good writing. That is especially true for titles. Canoeists will be looking for different titles than hunters or anglers. If your story is about fishing for walleye, for example, make sure you tell your audience upfront in the title, e.g., “Walleye Tips” or “The Five Rules of Walleye Fishing.” “A Day on Claymore Reservoir” might attract someone interested in boating or canoeing but not necessarily a walleye angler. Similarly, “Backpacking to Fortress Lake” might attract hikers to your piece but not necessarily trout anglers or fly fishers, even though that is mostly what your piece is about.

Slant or Tone
Titles like “The Five Rules of Walleye Fishing” or “Backpacking Primer” sets a tone for your piece that says “serious subject.” However, a title like “Trolling on Ice” or “Last Angler Standing” sets a less serious tone, and might hint at a little humor in your piece. So, a reader not really interested in a serious how-to, might just take a look at “Last Angler Standing” expecting some humor or a good story. Conversely, someone looking for some tips to catch more walleye might by-pass “Last Angler Standing.”

Key Words
The Internet is the chief way people find information these days. If you want interested readers to find your piece, you have to cater to search engines. Even if your piece is in a print magazine or newspaper, chances are good its title will be listed on the publication’s website and subject to an Internet search. Many print magazines and newspapers also post their print content on their websites; and depending on when the rights to a story revert back to you, you might wish to publish them again on your personal blog or website. Search engines look for key words in the title and content of websites. However, there is a hierarchy of what key words will take precedence in a search. The title is at the top of that hierarchy. So, you should be thinking about what key words should be in your title. For example, a piece on hiking the Skyline Trail should have that name in the title. Similarly, a piece on moose hunting should include at least “moose” in the title. Obviously, the title cannot hold many key words, but it should hold the most important.

Not too long ago, I saw an article in a popular outdoor magazine criticizing a government program to control wolves in aid of preserving threatened caribou. There was a lot of important information in the article that people concerned with the issue should understand. The only problem was the title was 14 words long, and I fear many people didn’t read the article because their eyes kept moving when they saw the title. The author was a biologist whom I assume had some experience reading and writing scientific journal articles. Such articles often have long titles but they are written for a narrow audience of fellow biologists who will indeed take the time to read the titles. Not so with a popular magazine where a long title can be the death knell of an article being read. People without a vested interest in a subject are not going to take the time to read a title more than a few words long. It’s just human nature, especially in these times of instant communication and short attentions spans.

Then how long should a title be? There are no hard rules but 10 words are generally accepted as the upper limit, the shorter the better.

So, let’s see. A title should be short, hook certain readers, hint at the content and tone, and contain key words. Easy, huh? Actually, few titles will satisfy all those conditions. Indeed, some of the best titles might seek to break those rules or indeed attract controversy. For example, a piece on the pros and cons of catch-and-release fishing might attract more readers if the title read “Banning Catch and Release.”

One article I wrote I titled “Death in the Woods.” Now, such a title could have related to a host of possible subjects; but it was about an unusual winter of deer deaths in Alberta. There was nothing about deer or winter in the title, but I knew “death” would get people curious. My publisher liked the title and featured it on the cover of the magazine. Again, it’s all about marketing.

Working Title
Many writers don’t consider their titles until they are well into the writing and trust inspiration to come up with a title somewhere down the road. For myself, I need some sort of title to get my writing started. It doesn’t have to be a good title, just something that mentions the subject matter and allows me to get some ideas down before I refine them into something understandable. Such preliminary titles are called “working titles.” They are used as placeholders while you wait for your inspiration (or the publisher) to provide a better title.

If you have what you think is a good title before you finish writing your piece, write it down but don’t just accept it after you finished writing. When the writing and rewriting are done and you’re ready to submit it for publication, now is the time to give a really serious look at the title. Something you wrote at the end, or when you finally read the piece as a whole, might inspire a better idea.

Title Tips
So your working title is not great and you’re stuck for a better one. How do you come up with a good title? There are a lot of suggestions on the Internet but perhaps one of the best is Richard Leahy’s “Twenty Titles for the Writer”. The following is an abbreviated summary of his list of title-writing exercises:

* Look for a short sentence in your piece that could serve as a title.
* Write a title that’s a question beginning with Who, What, When, How, Where or Why.
* Now try a question starting with Is (Are), Do (Does) or Will.
* Look for a description of some object in your piece, something the reader can imagine; try it as a title.
* Write a title beginning with an –ing verb, like “Hiking for Health.”
* Write a title beginning with “On,” like “On Nighttime Photography.”
* Write a one-word title, the most obvious word possible.
* Now write a two-word title, followed by three-word, four-word and five-word titles.
* Think of a familiar title of a book, song or movie that might fit your piece.
You should now have a list of possible titles. Go through them and select the ones that work the best. Take some and twist them a bit, or combine them, or double them, e.g., Hiking for Health: A Digital Assist.” By the time you’ve completed this exercise, you should have some pretty good candidates for a title.

Another Attack on Copyright

[Note: this post is modified from a piece I wrote for the November/December 2014 Outdoor Writers of Canada newsletter, Inside Outdoors.]

Sigh! It seems our federal government just doesn’t want to understand why creators need copyright to protect their right to earn a living—strange, coming from a conservative government you would think would want to protect a person’s right to run a business and be a contributing member of society. However, as first reported by CTV News on October 8, 2014, the government is planning to further “change Canada’s copyright law to allow political parties to use content published and broadcast by news organizations for free in their own political ads.” In other words, a political party could take something you wrote or broadcast and use it in a political advertisement without your permission or compensation.

Now, this might not look like it will affect you directly as an outdoor communicator; but it could. If you normally write typical “me and Joe went fishing/hunting/hiking” articles, you will most likely not be affected. However, if you write about a government or opposition party policy or how an issue is being handled or how laws are enforced, some politico in a campaign office might decide to use some of your words (images) to attack another party or support their own platform. Seemingly, they could attach your name to it, implying you support an issue, even though the clip is taken out of the context of the story you wrote and may not at all represent your opinion.

Manipulating your words and changing the meaning of what they say without your permission is a violation of your moral rights, a fundamental pillar of copyright. Your moral rights protect your reputation and personality as a writer/communicator, and they are the last rights you should ever give up over any work you produce. Sometimes publishers ask that you waive your moral rights, in which case (if you agree) they should pay you well and not credit you with authorship because you are giving them the right to change your wording as they see fit. What the federal government is proposing is not only outright theft of a writer’s work but the ability to cobble it into something it was not.

The problem with all this is that we so far have not been able to see the actual wording of the proposed change. For example, how will “news organizations” be defined. Will it include all magazines, web sites, etc., or just those solely involved with news (however that might be defined)? What is disturbing is the wording will be hidden in yet another undemocratic omnibus bill, where a lot of legislation will be put forth in one all-or-none package. So, the wording about copyright changes will most likely get lost in a debate about a whole bunch of other issues.

All that said, the leak of the internal document does provide an opportunity for writers and other creators to address the issue with their members of parliament. Personally speaking, I cannot see how such legislation as described in the news articles can hold up in court. However, that has never stopped this government, who prefers to bully legislation through and let the courts sort out the details. Nevertheless, in the past when enough people complain the government has made changes before presenting a bill. So I strongly suggest you contact your MP and let him/her know of your concerns about this pending legislation. It can’t hurt and you just might make a difference.

Update to ‘Income Tax Tip for Canadian Writers’

I was hoping  if and when I updated my March 3, 2012 post about writer/artist income tax and the T5 slip, it would be a positive update where I could report that the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) had finally recognized it was not correctly handling certain T5 slips issued to freelance writers, photographers and artists and had taken steps to address the issue. But alas, that is not the case. This February I received the same reassessment I have been receiving almost annually from the CRA, in this case with regard to my 2012 return and the T5 slip issued by Access Copyright, the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency. As I explained in my earlier post, the reassessment claims I have not reported this income when in fact I have.

However, this time there was a new wrinkle. When I phoned the CRA, using their toll-free number as I have in the past, I was informed that the CRA no longer initiates changes to its reassessments over the phone. Instead, I would have to write a postal letter to the CRA explaining how my T5 slip was reported; this despite the fact that I already had reported this to the CRA in a physical, postal letter I submitted in addition to my electronically filed 2012 tax return.

So, as instructed, I wrote and sent said letter, but I did not stop there. I also wrote a letter of complaint to Kerry-Lynne D. Findlay, Minister of National Revenue, with copies to Access Copyright and The Writers’ Union of Canada (who has championed this issue in the past). If you feel the same, I strongly suggest you write a letter to the Minister as well! It’s easy to interpret this treatment by government as harassment, and it just might be. But if we don’t complain, it won’t change.

Standing Up for Writing

Like all desk jobs, writing for a living is not associated with good physical fitness. Sitting at a desk for hours at a time without much body movement, other than tapping keys or raising one’s arm to sip a coffee or other beverage, does nothing positive for your physical fitness and health. Of course, we understand this and if we are concerned about our fitness, we schedule regular workout routines to offset our lack of physical activity at our desks. This is what I do year-round (see my blog post, How Fit are You?). I try to do at least three cardio-vascular workouts (jog, cross-country ski or recumbent bike) a week augmented with weight training and regular walking/bike-riding on the other days. So, if I maintain this regime, I should be all right with spending five to eight hours a day at my desk, right?

As it turns out, wrong. The fact I am sitting immobile for such a long time each day causes my body to produce less of the enzymes that burn fats, as outlined in a December 1, 2012 New York Times article by Steve Lohr. The loss can be as much as 90% and occurs despite how much physical activity you otherwise do. It can lead to many of  the health issues some of us fight each day: e.g., excess weight, high blood-sugar and cholesterol levels. It might indeed explain why, despite my workouts and diet, I can’t seem to lose much weight.

Now, standing up to write is nothing new. Such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill and Philip Roth stood to do their writing. Indeed, as outlined in Lohr’s article, sitting at a desk is actually a 20th century phenomenon. Prior to that, office workers regularly stood to do most of their work. With that in mind, I decided I should get off my rear-end and do something to make my work time a bit more healthy.

You can buy standing desks, ranging in price from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. Not being sure how well I would adapt to this new mode of work, I decided to build my own low-cost standing desk from one of those listed in Lohr’s article: i.e., Colin Nederkoorn’s The Stand Desk 2200.

Stand Desk

My Stand Desk 2200 in use.

My stand desk cost $17.98 (Cdn) for the same or similar Ikea materials Nederkoorn used (Lack Side Table, $12.99; Ekby Shelf, $2.99; 2-brackets, $2.00; plus some wood screws I already had). It took less than an hour to assemble and the whole operation can be taken down quickly (without disassembly) if you or someone else decides to sit at the desk.

For my height (6’0”; 1.8 m), the table on top of my desk just fit my requirements with my 24” iMac monitor. If you have a smaller or lower mounted screen, you might want to raise it using an old book or similar object to prevent neck strain and other ergonomic issues. The height of the  shelf is easily adjusted to accommodate comfortable use of the keyboard.

Standing in one place for a period of time takes some getting used to. In the first week, I found myself often retreating to my comfy desk chair to relax my legs. However, as I got used to the idea, I soon easily stood for 20 to 30 minutes at a time without problem. As well, health experts warn us about staring at a computer screen for too long at a time. So, my legs remind me when I should take a break. As a result, I have found that I am better at organizing my time: concentrating on what needs to be done at the computer and using my rest time to address muse, plot and next steps.

To relieve some of the tension that builds in my leg muscles, I have placed a block of wood (actually an old 4”-high computer stand from the days when bulky CPUs stood on the floor) just under my desk. The block allows me to shift my weight from one leg to the other by alternately placing my feet on it. I learned this trick from an auto-mechanic friend of mine who regularly stands at his computer in the shop while analyzing engines.

Many people have also incorporated treadmills or stationary bikes into their stand desks. I have not yet done this as I like what I’ve done so far and don’t want to take away from the energy I still need to get a good cardio-workout completed away from my desk and in the outdoors when possible. If I find an economical treadmill that doesn’t take up too much space, I might try it, especially in winter when outside conditions can be trying.

Overall, I’ve found using my standing computer desk to be a boon to my writing. With regard to my fitness, I have improved the strength in my back. Being in my late 60s, I regularly take blood tests to monitor glucose and cholesterol levels, and they have indeed improved. Whether that and some weight loss is directly related to the standing desk, I cannot say, as I’ve also improved my diet and concentrated on my cardio training. However, perhaps what is most important is that standing at my desk while writing makes me feel I’m doing something positive for my health while earning my living doing what I love. So, what’s wrong with that?

P.S. An article in the August 10, 2013 Economist, Standing Orders lists some of the scientific studies highlighting the positive effects standing while working.

P.P.S. Yet another article, this time from the BBC. Also, here’s a link to how author Arthur Slade uses a treadmill desk. Don’t miss the video at the bottom!

Also, see my comment below with regard to why I’m now sitting at my desk.

All Rights

[Note: this post is modified from a piece I wrote for the January/February 2013 Outdoor Writers of Canada newsletter, Inside Outdoors.]

My last post on Copyright After Bill C-11, about what writers should do while the courts sort out the mess the federal government has made of the Copyright Act, got some people stirred up. I received messages from several Outdoor Writers of Canada members with regard to specific publishing contracts people had been offered or indeed had signed. It was pretty sobering stuff. One contract was as brutal and bold as they come. It asked that the writer sign over his/her copyright and waive his moral rights in the piece under consideration. It then went on to state what the publisher could do with the manuscript, which was basically anything it wanted to do in the world—which was redundant, because by turning over your copyright and moral rights, you have turned over complete ownership to the publisher.

Of course, such a contract should be refused unless 1) the publisher is paying very well for the  piece, 2) you as a writer cannot see any hope of ever selling it elsewhere, and 3) you don’t mind your name being associated with opinions and viewpoints that are not necessarily yours. Now, to be fair (if you ever can be with someone trying to rob you) the draft contract did state that it could be “modified” through mutual signed agreement. So, I’m thinking this is the standard contract this particular publisher offers to writers in hope that the latter are naïve enough to accept such ludicrous conditions just to get published and see their names in print. More experienced writers would negotiate modifications and try to get a fairer deal. After all, contracts almost by definition are negotiable. However, if that were a contract offered to me, I would completely rewrite it based on contracts I have signed in the past that have at least tried to be fair.

Nowadays, with the publishing industry in disarray, publishers are trying to protect themselves against what might happen in the future. Although most don’t request the copyright, in many cases they might as well. One book contract I was offered a few years back didn’t ask for my copyright, but did ask for the right to publish my book in any format (print, digital; book, movie, game or my personal favorite: “any other format that might be developed in the future”), at any time, anywhere in the world. When I phoned them to negotiate a fairer agreement based on what this particular publisher could actually accomplish in North America, I was directed to a lawyer who told me the contract was not negotiable—i.e., take it or leave it. After a heated exchange, I told him to stuff his contract (this after I had been working with their editor for about six weeks) and continued to shop my manuscript. I learned later the publisher was in bankruptcy protection and lawyers were running the show. Needless to say, I was more than glad to have been out of that deal.

We freelance writers are under assault these days on many fronts. Protecting your copyright is a fundamental defence of your business and I urge all freelance writers to give serious consideration to all contracts offered. How important is it to you to get a piece published? What are you willing to give up? In other words, is what you gain worth the cost?

Moral Rights
One of the clauses in some of these odious contracts asks the writer to waive or “not exercise” his or her “moral rights” in a manuscript. Just what are your moral rights? As defined by Lesley Ellen Harris in Canadian Copyright Law (3rd edition, 2001), “Moral rights protect the personality or reputation of an author.” They are separate from copyright. In other words, you may assign your copyright to a publisher but you can never give up your moral rights. However, you can agree not to exercise them.

According to Harris, your moral rights can be broken down into three categories: 1) the right of paternity, 2) the right of integrity, and 3) the right of association.

Paternity rights include the right to claim authorship, to remain anonymous, and to use a pseudonym. A publisher must identify the author of a piece unless it has been agreed not do so, or to use a pseudonym or pen name.

Integrity rights protect the author from changes to his/her work that “prejudice the honor or reputation of the author.” In other words, any changes made by the publisher without the author’s permission that change the intent of the piece or describe an opinion not held by the author is a violation of the moral rights of the author.

Association rights protect the author from his or her work being associated with a “product, service, cause or institution” that is “prejudicial to the honor or reputation of the author.” If the publisher is going to use your piece to promote a cause or product which you do not endorse, that should be made clear to you before you sign a contract or write the piece.

As you can see, waiving your moral rights is not something you do lightly. So, when should you waive your moral rights in a work? In short, when it’s to your business advantage to do so. For example, I have done a lot of contract writing for governments: brochures, reports, manuals and web sites. In most of those cases, the contract I signed stated I was waiving my moral rights. Why? Because the bureaucrats with whom I was dealing wanted the ability to change my writing long after the contract was finished in case there was new information or indeed political considerations. Having been a bureaucrat who hired freelance writers, I fully understood this concern. As a freelance writer in this situation, you are writing as if you are the government. Your name does not appear on these published pieces, and you don’t want it to appear. As such, you should be paid well for this type of writing, and indeed governments tend to pay well for your research as well as your writing time. Such writing has indeed put food on my table and in several ways financed the other writing I do that doesn’t pay so well.

To summarize, if you are writing a piece that will be published with your byline on it, you should never give up your copyright or waive your moral rights. License certain rights to get the piece published but don’t sell the farm to buy a horse.

Expansion of “Fair Dealing” in Canada

Fellow Canadian Writers:

If you are having difficulty understanding the implications of the passage of Bill C-11, the Copyright Modernization Act, on your potential writing income, perhaps the following radio interview of John Degen, the Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), by student radio CKUT at McGill University, will help explain it.

John Degen CKUT interview

Although John talks about so-called “literary” writing, this bill impacts all published writing, photography, art. If you receive  payments from Access Copyright (and if you are a published Canadian writer/photographer/illustrator, you should be receiving payments) for people copying your work, this bill will be affecting your income.

If you know of students, teachers or professors who should know about these concerns, please pass the link along.

Copyright after Bill C-11

[Note: this post is modified from  a piece I wrote for the November/December 2012 Outdoor Writers of Canada newsletter, Inside Outdoors.]

The Canadian freelance writing profession is under serious attack these days. Our basic right to earn a living from the work we do is under attack from our own federal government as well as schools, libraries and provincial education departments. With the passage of Bill C-11 this past year, it will become increasingly difficult for writers to earn a living from the sale of their work. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know Bill C-11 changed the Copyright Act to include education copying under fair dealing where the copying can be done without compensating the creator or publisher. Unfortunately, neither “education” nor “fair dealing” were fully defined in the legislation, which means the courts will have to do it. This will take years, so what should you do in the meantime?

Declare Your Copyright
In Canada, your copyright is automatic as soon as you write something and put your name on it as the creator. When you sell your work for publication, you are not selling your copyright in that work (at least you shouldn’t be); you are selling the right to publish it. In effect, you are granting a licence to a specific person or company to publish once in a specific format and geographic region. That licence can be in the form of a written contract or a verbal agreement. Of course, a written contract is best, but many of us deal with magazine and other periodical publishers where agreements are often verbal and certain assumptions are made about licensing the work. Over the decades, case law has determined that if no formal agreement has been made, it is assumed the creator is granting the publisher “First North American Serial Rights” or FNASR.

With FNASR, you are granting the publisher the right to publish your work once for the first time in North America. You retain the right to take the same piece and publish it a second and subsequent times with other publishers in that geographic region. However, you cannot do this until the first right has expired (usually the duration of the published piece in the market place). If you want to grant other rights or further restrict those rights, you must state so either in a written agreement (such as a mutually signed letter) or on the manuscript. For example, you could grant a licence to publish for the first time only in Canada by printing at the top of your manuscript “First Canadian Serial Rights Only” (thus allowing you to grant first rights in the U.S. and elsewhere); or if you have already published the piece for the first time, and have negotiated a subsequent publishing, you should place at the top of that manuscript, “Second North American Serial Rights Only”. All that said, publishers do have the right to get back to you and negotiate something different (most will want FNASR).

When I first started in this business some 35 years ago, it was common practice to put at the top of new manuscripts submitted to periodical publishers, “First North America Serial Rights Only”, even though this was generally understood. It was considered the professional thing to do, indicating to the publisher that you understand your copyright and what you are licensing. I continue this practice to this day and strongly recommend all writers do so. Why? When it comes to copyright in the absence of a formal written agreement, your submitted manuscript is a legal document (you should always keep a dated, hard copy of that manuscript in your files). If the publisher, for whatever reason, should re-publish or sell your work when you did not grant a licence to do so, your copy of that manuscript is your proof of what rights were indeed granted. (This was the basis upon which Heather Robertson launched a successful class-action law suit in 2006 against three major media companies who had placed articles, originally sold for print publication, into electronic data bases without permission or compensation.)

Why would this be important under the new, as yet undefined, copyright legislation? Because we don’t know how this is going to turn out in court. However, if previous Supreme Court rulings are any guideline, chances are good the free educational copying of more than short excerpts of works will be restricted. If that is indeed the case (and not just my hope), then the rights you originally granted the publisher could be important, especially in cases where your entire article/book/video was used in course packs or other mass copying for which you were not compensated.

Copyright Notice
Many writers these days publish their own work either in print or on blogs or other web sites. With the traditional publishing industry in turmoil, and digital publishing so much easier, self-publishing is the natural course of events for many who want to be published and read. With so much material on the web and elsewhere and the attitude of many people browsing the web that anything on it is free for copying and appropriation, it is important that any self-published work has a copyright notice on it to declare the author’s intent on protecting his or her interest in the work.

Of course, if you are publishing on the web at a site freely available to the public, you are automatically agreeing to some free use of your work—such as viewing on a computer (smart phone, iPad) screen and printing for personal use. However, you want to protect your right to be compensated if someone wishes to use your work commercially (sell to someone else). A copyright notice announces that intent. A typical notice (usually placed near the top of the article) might read “Copyright © 2012 John Q. Writer” or “© 2012 J.Q. Writer” or as part of the byline, “by John Q. Writer © 2012”.

The notice won’t necessarily stop unauthorized use, but it will cause the more thoughtful (such as educational administrators) to seriously consider the consequences of copying your work to sell to someone else (e.g., students). I put many of my previously publishing articles on my web site or blog, and place a copyright notice on each. Over the years, I have been contacted several times by people wishing to use my work, I’m sure as a direct result of my copyright notices. So, the notices work. They could be very important if an educational institution, for example, should copy your work without giving you compensation and the Supreme Court determines that such copying is illegal. Your notice will back up your original intention to protect that work. It’s a simple thing to do.

We are in a long war to protect our right to be properly compensated for the work we do. Although Bill C-11 passed with the educational provisions intact, we continue to win many of the battles in court through the efforts of Access Copyright. As the beneficiaries of those efforts, we must do our part to ensure we understand those rights and protect them.

Income Tax Tip for Canadian Writers

[Note: this post is modified from  a piece I wrote for the March/April 2012 Outdoor Writers of Canada newsletter, Inside Outdoors.]

It’s that time of year again when we all must sit down and face the reality of just how much we did or did not earn last year in preparation of our annual income tax returns. Part of that preparation is making sure we report our writing business income and deductions correctly to pay as little tax as legally possible. However, many writers are not aware of how they should be reporting certain income to get the greatest benefit in both the short and long term. I am no accountant or tax lawyer but I have been in this business for over 30 years and have had a long relationship with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).

T5 Slips
Book publishers and Access Copyright (AC) report to the CRA income earned by writers and photographers, etc. as royalties on T5 slips. The instructions on the form tell you to report the revenue on  line 121 of your return as investment income or line 104 as other income. However, your AC and publisher revenue is NOT investment income. It is income you have earned as a result of publishing your writing or photography and rightly should be reported on line 135 of your tax return as earned business income as explained on the CRA web page.

Why is this important?

  1. As earned writing income you can legitimately subtract your writing expenses from it. If you are like most writers and barely break-even or only make a little profit, every piece of earned income is important, especially to the CRA in case you ever have to prove that you have a reasonable expectation of making a profit (i.e., pay taxes) from your writing. It’s always a good idea to show a profit from time to time in case that expectation is questioned.
  2. You get credit for earning the income on such things as how much you can contribute to a Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP), and how much you will eventually receive from the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Old Age Security (OAS). This may not seem important if you are young but believe me it is as you approach retirement age. Your CPP (when the time comes) is calculated based on the amount of income you have earned over the years. The key word here is “earned”. Revenue from investments (dividends/interest) does not qualify as income for calculating what you receive from CPP or OAS or invest in an RRSP. Every piece of earned income you claim over the years will affect how much you receive from your RRSPs, CPP or OAS in your “golden years”.

So, claim your AC royalty as earned income in your writing (communication) business. But why does AC, and book publishers report revenue paid to writers on T5 slips? That’s a good question, and I have never heard a good explanation except that it is not salaried earnings (reported on T4 slips) and the CRA wanted them to report the earnings on something…? Writers have struggled with the CRA on this issue for decades. Several years ago, the combined efforts of The Writers’ Union of Canada (book authors) and the Professional Writers Association of Canada (periodical writers) convinced the CRA to issue a policy statement that those taxpayers who claim writing and artistic business income can claim royalty earnings from their publications as earned business income (it was always the case, but until then not formalized). That statement is reflected in the CRA web page explaining what you must do to report this income.

That’s great but often the minions at the CRA (or its computers) haven’t heard of this policy, and will flag your return because the CRA has received a T5 slip they believe you have not claimed as income. So, here is what you must do:

  • if you submit a paper return, include the T5 slip as required and write on it that this income is reported as part of your writing business (line 135) and not as investment income. Enclose a covering letter explaining where the income is reported. [Note: as of 2013 (with the 2012 tax return), the CRA is discouraging paper (hardcopy) returns. However, if you dig down deep enough in your tax software, you will find a way to postal-mail a ‘condensed’ paper version acceptable to the CRA.]
  • if you file electronically (where receipts etc. are not included), you need to also post a physical letter to the CRA (with all the details of who you are, SIN etc.) explaining why you did not report the T5 as investment income.

All that done, you may still get a reassessment back in a few months, showing the CRA has recalculated your tax to include the T5 as investment income (the reassessment is issued by a computer), thus double crediting that particular income. Don’t get angry (although easy to do). Just pick up the phone and call them (using the toll-free number found near the end of the reassessment) and explain that you are a writer and that the income on these particular T5 slips is income you have earned from your writing and was reported as part of your business income on line 135 of the T1 form. The first time this happened to me is when I learned that I should send a covering letter on each return explaining the situation. It’s a pain in the rear-end, but I do it (I have a form letter on my computer where I just change the dates). Also, I used to file electronically, but this hiccup with the T5 and a couple of investment issues where cover letters are required has convinced me that I should be sending in the physical return with all the attachments. If you use a tax accountant to prepare your return, alert him or her of this situation and why it is important to you. Print the CRA web page I’ve linked above.

Now, I know it is real easy to give in to the CRA and just report this income as investment, but DON’T. You will lose out in the long run. Take the extra steps. You won’t regret it.

PostScript: As I reported in a subsequent post to this blog, in March of 2014 I once again received a reassessment of my tax return (for 2012) that said I had not included income from my Access Copyright T5 slip. Following the above procedure, I phoned the CRA and was told they no longer make changes to files over the phone and I must write them a letter explaining the problem. This I did but I did not stop there. I wrote another letter to the Minister of National Revenue explaining my frustration with this procedure. The last time I did this (in 2012) I did get a phone call back from the CRA telling me that they were aware of the problem and that they were working on it. Well, apparently not. This does feel like harassment. If you feel the same, I strongly suggest you write a letter too! You might cc your local MP, Access Copyright and any other  organization you feel should be addressing this issue. I cannot believe there is not a software fix for this. DM

%d bloggers like this: