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Michael Geist’s covert ties to Amazon

[This post has been updated]

The debate surrounding Amazon’s planned Canadian expansion has produced many arguments both for (the editorial boards at The Globe and Mail and National Post) and against (the Canadian Booksellers Association, the Association of Canadian Publishers). While such polarized opinions are to be expected, one of the most surprising voices to come out in support of Amazon is copyright activist and University of Ottawa academic Michael Geist, known for his anti-corporate stance on many copyright issues in the digital age.

In Monday’s Toronto Star, Geist went after the Canadian Booksellers Association, arguing that the “CBA’s attempt to cloak the issue as a matter of Canadian culture is unsurprising, but [Heritage Minister James] Moore should recognize this for what it is – a transparent attempt to hamstring a tough competitor that ultimately hurts the Canadian culture sector.” Geist went on to suggest that Amazon’s (theoretically) unlimited selection of books is a good thing for Canadian culture and that the “scarcity of space in brick-and-mortar stores has long been a key concern for Canadian authors and publishers, who fear that their titles might get squeezed off the shelves.”

In the wake of Geist’s op-ed, U.S. blogger Christian L. Castle, described on his blog as a Los Angeles–based journalist, has unearthed ties between Amazon and an Internet think tank headed co-created by Geist:

First of all, it should not be overlooked that Geist’s U.S.-backed Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, the Alcan of IP with its almost 100% American board, “was established in 2003 with the aid of a start-up grant from an Amazon.com Cy Pres fund, received by Prof. Michael Geist.” Now I’m sure that Geist would deny that he personally received any money, but if that’s true, they might want to revise that sentence on the SG-CIPPIC website.

It’s entirely possible that Geist, in his ignorance of book retailing and the publishing sector, truly believes that independent booksellers are a threat to Canadian culture. If that’s the case, however, he should have been above-board about his past dealings with Amazon.

[Update] Michael Geist responds: “The Amazon grant was money that came via a court order through a class action settlement. It was used to establish the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic in 2003. Being part of a Cy Pres Fund, Amazon did not oversee or make the award. A court did. There is no conflict and nothing hidden. In fact, look back at my earlier columns criticizing them for the Kindle to see how much influence they have over what I say. None.”

  • http://indexmb.com Mark

    Hey Stuart,

    The link to the Toronto Star piece is broken. See –> http://j.mp/aQBedK for the syndication of it on Geist’s own website.

    I caught Geist’s debate with the CBA’s Mark Lebevre yesterday on CBC’s Q. His point then — and seemingly in his column — is that publishing is a cultural industry that should be protected, but book retail is not in itself cultural and should not be afforded the same protection. Any attempt to shield Canadian booksellers from Amazon should be understood in a business context not a cultural one. His reasoning followed from Amazon already selling in Canada with no discernible harm to our culture. Naturally Lebevre disagreed but otherwise I thought it was a great discussion. Geist didn’t say or write “that independent booksellers are a threat to Canadian culture.”

    And I disagree with your assertion that Geist is anti-corporate on copyright issues. The worst you could call him is pro-consumer. He is a law professor not an activist, and the discussions he has on his blog and in-person tend towards reform rather than radicalization. He can’t be both anti-corporate and pro-Amazon at the same time can he?

    As for the allegations about cippic.ca — I am sure the claims (and counter-claims) will work themselves out. I know nothing about it but I find it suspect that US-lobby money is in deep with a Canadian university. Does our system work that way?

    In any case, thanks for pointing to this issue.
    Best regards.

  • http://translucid.ca/ Bob LeDrew

    I find it interesting that while the Castle blog refers to him as a journalist, there’s also a music industry lawyer by the same name in California. Check out http://www.christiancastle.com. I have no idea whether they’re actually the same person or not, but if so, they’re not really a “journalist.”

    A brief scan through his blogs also indicates a pretty strong antipathy to Geist. If being a “journalist” connotes a certain level of objectivity, I don’t think this guy’s got it.

    In the interests of disclosure: I worked at uOttawa from 2000-2006 in communications and did some communications work on files involving Geist. I have no current business relationship with him (or CIPPIC).

  • The Butler

    When did Q&Q decide its model itself after the National Enquirer? This post has the requisite outlandish headline and unsupported claims (independent booksellers are a threat to Canadian culture?) all based on a single blogger who clearly has it in for Geist. Given the update and explanation, there obviously was no attempt to get his side of the story. Is this what Q&Q has sunk to? Pretty pathetic.

  • Von

    I think Q&Q has improved immensely. Even a single blogger has a right to his opinion. It’s not just what the establishment chooses to put out (like a LA publicity machine), but what the people think that counts.

  • ConventionalContrarian

    Reread carefully. Geist attacks independent retailers’s position as negatively impacting Canadian culture. He clearly states that CBA’s proposal “ultimately HURTS THE CANADIAN CULTURE SECTOR.” Words are his; emphasis is mine.
    Gee, wonder whose handselling kickstarted the careers of any number of writers? It wasn’t the online retailers.

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