Artists desperate for legal help during COVID

September 21, 2020 | By Julius Melnitzer

New research confirms that a multitude of legal challenges, aggravated by the “devastating” impact of COVID-19. faces the Canadian arts sector.

“We wanted to prove to arts funders, like Canada Heritage and the Canada Council for the Arts (CCA), that there existed very pressing legal needs,” says Martha Rans, a Vancouver lawyer who focuses on the non-profit and arts sector. “So we did a national needs assessment, which told us much of what we already knew.”

Martha Rans

The report by the National Network of Legal Clinics for the Arts (NNLCA), funded by the CCA, surveyed more than 1,150 artists, organizations and lawyers. Its primary conclusion is that there is an urgent need for geographic expansion of existing legal services, best achieved by improved funding for a robust national network of legal clinics.

Indeed, some 94 percent of respondents felt strongly that they faced unique legal needs. The vast majority also felt strongly that they lacked information and training on relevant issues and had inadequate access to legal services.

Contract violations, intellectual theft and eviction are among the “major preoccupations” driving these needs. More specifically, respondents saw huge potential for exploitation by agents and publishers, plagiarism, and copyright infringement.

Digital privacy, social media, business, employment, harassment, governance and defamation issues also raised concerns.

“As the artistic landscape continues to be shaped by technologies that offer new ways of creating, consuming, and distributing art, the need for legal literacy is becoming integral to a sustainable and successful artistic practice,” the report states.

The difficulty is that most Canadian artists earn at poverty level, making specialized legal help beyond their reach. It’s also not available in many small markets. Artists in places like Nunavut and the Northwest Territories may even lack Internet access.

“COVID has moved the goalposts and worsened the situation,” says Toronto-based Diane Roberts, an accomplished director, dramaturge, writer and cultural animator, who has collaborated with innovative theatre visionaries and interdisciplinary artists for the past 30 years. “We really have no protection, for example, when venues or producers cancel contracts.”

Currently, the legal services structure for artists is fragmented. That makes them inaccessible to many.

“We live in a country where many artists reside in rural and remote communities; where many artists are Indigenous, racialized, or are from other historically marginalized priority groups; and where the COVID-19 crisis continues to worsen artists’ precarious economic situation,” the report states.

There are a number of arts service organizations who do provide legal information specific to their area but are not primarily concerned with these services. They include Access Copyright, Musicians’ Rights Organization Canada, the Society of Composer, Authors & Music Publishers of Canada, The Writers’ Union of Canada and Canadian Artists’ Representation.

The upshot is that independent multidisciplinary legal clinics offer most of the low-cost or free legal services available for Canadian artists. But there are only six: Artists’ Legal Advice Services (ALAS) and Visual Artists’ Legal Clinic Ontario in Toronto; Artists’ Legal Outreach (ALO) in Vancouver, co-founded by Rans; Artists’ Legal Services Ottawa (ALSO); Artists’ Legal Information Society (ALIS) in Halifax; and La Clinique Juridique des Artistes de Montréal (CJAM).

Even these few, however, operate in relative isolation and with scarce resources.

“Federal and provincial funding criteria have been limiting the clinics’ ability to collaborate,” the report states. “Lack of funding also means the clinics are almost entirely volunteer-run, placing the burden of gathering support and funds squarely on the shoulders of local volunteers. Consequently, expanded services to meet the urgent legal needs in
the sector cannot be delivered by the current clinics . . .”

Increased funding, however, would enable the current clinics to enhance capacity and share resources. This, in turn, would allow them to identify and incorporate best practices; eliminate duplication and focus on nationally-oriented materials; and build relationships to open up new legal clinics where needed.

“We strongly believe that A National Network of Legal Clinics for the Arts represents an effective and sustainable solution that would give Canadian artists and arts organizations across the country access to the legal information, education and advice that they need,” the report states.

As it turns out, ALAS, ALO and ALSO are already working together in an incipient national network. They will be driving the process going forward.


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Julius Melnitzer is a Toronto-based legal journalist, writing coach and media trainer for lawyers at

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