John Bishop Ballem, 1925-2010

In Canadian legal circles, John Ballem was recognized as a respected oil and gas lawyer who wrote crime novels in his spare time. But Ballem considered his writing much more than a sideline. “If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t be a contented person,” he said. He was as proud of his nomination for the 1997 Arthur Ellis Award for Excellence in Crime Writing as he was of his 2009 Distinguished Service Award for Legal Scholarship from the Canadian Bar Association.

He published his first novel, The Devil’s Lighter, in 1973 at age 48. Set in the Alberta oil patch, it took its colourful title from the expression used by rig workers to describe the phenomenon of a rogue well gushing out of control and then bursting into flames. The book sold so well that Ballem published several more oil patch thrillers in the same vein, all portraying what a Calgary Herald writer called “a world of wild parties, brawls, steamy sex, beautiful women, gritty roughnecks, and wheeler-dealers.”

Ballem knew the landscape well. As a Calgary corporate lawyer specializing in freehold energy leases, he acted for just about every big name in the oil patch, including Imperial Oil, Gulf Canada, Shell Oil, and a host of others. He long represented the Canadian Petroleum Association, the official voice of big oil, and he knew all the star players who shaped the oil patch following the 1947 Leduc discovery that marked the start of the modern industry. These included such larger-than-life characters as Frank McMahon of Pacific Petroleums, Bobby Brown of Home Oil, and “Smiling” Jack Gallagher of Dome Petroleum.

Ballem took up writing after his amateur career as a show jumper was ended by a fall. “I wasn’t bouncing so well,” he noted wryly. He produced a series of travel documentaries set in Africa, and soon decided he could write as well as the scriptwriters. That led him to writing fiction. “It became a sort of parlour game in Calgary to match my characters with real people,” he said.

By 1991, Ballem had published nine novels. Each sold more than 13,000 copies. One, The Judas Conspiracy, sold more than 50,000. His prodigious output prompted a series of questions from Calgary Herald books columnist Ken McGoogan, now a bestselling author in his own right. What made Ballem write, and write so hard, and produce so much, while still maintaining a busy career as a lawyer? “Obviously, you don’t NEED to write novels,” said McGoogan. Ballem begged to differ. “There’s pleasure in creating something that will last,” he said. McGoogan acknowledged that the lasting value of three Ballem novels in particular was in their depiction of the growing years of the Alberta oil industry “from the halcyon 1950s through the tumultuous 1980s.” Later combined with a fourth novel, they were reissued by Cormorant in 2005 as The Oil Patch Quartet.

Ballem lived in Calgary from 1954 onward. Before that, he served as a fighter pilot in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War, and lectured for two years at the University of British Columbia’s law school. Born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, he inherited a love of literature and the arts from his father, a surgeon and classics scholar, and from his mother, a nurse, violinist and painter. He earned an arts degree from Dalhousie University in 1946, followed by law degrees from Dalhousie and Harvard. When he received an offer to join the Imperial Oil law department in 1952, Ballem jumped at the chance to “get out of academe and into the mainstream.” Two years later, Imperial transferred him to Calgary.

Ballem spent four years with Imperial and six with Westcoast Transmission before starting his own law firm in partnership with future Alberta premier Peter Lougheed. Eleven years later, in 1973, he published both the novel that launched his career as a fiction writer, and a legal text, The Oil and Gas Lease in Canada, that is now into its fourth edition and regarded as a classic of its kind. Widely used and cited, it serves as what a Herald business writer called “a guide through the intricate world of land deals that allow the petroleum industry to keep ticking.”

As well as writing novels and legal documents, Ballem published two volumes of poetry, several short stories, and numerous newspaper articles about his travels to such places as Dubai, Easter Island, the North Pole and the South Pole, which he reached in January 2009. His last article, for the CanWest newspapers, was about his 2009 journey to Antarctica to see where Sir Ernest Shackleton had embarked on his transcontinental expedition in 1914. “There were many epic voyages in the heroic age of polar exploration in the early 20th century,” wrote Ballem. “A few may have equalled, but none surpassed Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctica Expedition.”

Ballem died on January 9, 2010, three weeks before he would have celebrated his 85th birthday. At the time, according to The Globe and Mail, he was correcting the final proofs of his 14th novel, Murder on the Bow, due for publication this spring. His interests were “multitudinous,” his wife Grace told the Globe. “But his main love was the law.”

Google redux

The Google Books Settlement, which seeks to create a vast digital library of mostly out-of-print books, has been much talked about in recent days. A group of 250 Canadian writers is urging the federal government, writers, publishers, and other copyright holders to tell Google to scrap the deal. Three American writers’ organizations have sent an open letter to Congress objecting to the settlement, first reached in October 2008 between Google, the American Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers. An amended version of that original settlement goes to a New York court fairness hearing on February 18, 2010.

Here’s what I think about the amended settlement. It stems from a class-action lawsuit launched against Google in 2005 after Google had struck deals with major American university libraries to scan and copy millions of books in their collections. Some of those books were Canadian. Some of them could have been mine. Far as I can tell, however, my books have been excluded from the scanning process.

Many writers were outraged when they discovered that Google had secretly scanned more than seven million books, thus perpetrating what author Nick Taylor called “a plain and brazen violation of copyright law.” Google said it was doing nothing wrong, claiming its online display of “snippets” from the digitized books represented a “fair use” of the material. The Guild begged to differ and the lawsuit was filed.

The Authors Guild was the only writers’ organization to challenge Google in court. It is the largest such group in the United States, representing more than 8,000 published authors. Its counterpart in this country is The Writers’ Union of Canada, which has close to 1,900 members. Other American writers’ groups sat and watched while the Authors Guild took on the behemoth.

After eight months of negotiations, the Guild, the publishers who had joined the lawsuit, and Google decided that the legal proceedings were going nowhere. The plaintiffs offered a settlement proposal to Google. As summarized by author Roy Blount Jr., it said, in effect: While we don’t approve of your unauthorized scanning of our books, if you’re willing to cut authors in for their fair share, then it would be our pleasure to work with you. Two and one-half years later, they announced a $125 million final agreement. About one-third of that money would go to authors and publishers whose books had been scanned without permission. An amended version of the 323-page agreement—made necessary because the US Department of Justice and others criticized the original document—is now going to the New York court for approval.

I still have problems with parts of the amended settlement. For example, I don’t like the fact that it will allow American libraries to provide free public online access to digitized books without any compensation to authors except for page printouts. That’s the same as allowing radio stations to play copyright music recordings without paying royalties to the songwriters. Nor do I like the fact that it puts the onus on foreign authors, including Canadians, to either list their out-of-print books in a proposed new Google tracking registry or lose control of their works.

But by and large I think the Authors Guild has negotiated a fair deal on behalf of its 8,000 members and—by extension—all other authors in the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia whose works were digitized without permission. The settlement offers a small amount of money for now and the prospect of more in the future, when authors will receive a percentage of whatever Google can get from selling institutional subscriptions to online book collections, and from selling online access to individual consumers.

Google still admits no wrong. The settlement’s critics cry copyright infringement and Google responds with a defence of fair use. Google says that regardless of whether or not the settlement is approved by the court, it will continue to digitize books in the future, and continue to sell access to its database. Call it arrogance, call it hubris, call it what you will, but who will throw down the gauntlet? So far, only the Authors Guild has dared to do so, and it called a truce after weighing the potential benefits against the possible risks, expenses, and delays of continued litigation.

I can live with the deal, for now. The U.S. justice department and the Federal Trade Commission will continue to monitor its anti-trust and consumer-protection implications. The court will decide if it serves the interest of all parties, including the reading public. If I like what the court decides, I will accept whatever small compensation Google wants to give me for selling future online access to my books. If not, I will politely tell Google that I want to give my business to someone else. So there.