Canadian copyright bill opens up debate on digital locks
Hart Snider is carefully watching the debate around Bill C-32, the Stephen Harper government’s latest attempt at copyright reform. The Vancouver-based filmmaker and remix artist is worried about provisions in the proposed Copyright Modernization Act that would protect digital locks. He says these provisions would criminalize the way many Canadians use digital media, such as music, movies, and e-books.
During an interview at a Downtown Eastside café, Snider scrolled through his video résumé on his laptop. Over the years, he has made dozens of video mashups using footage of iconic moments in popular culture and obscure audio samples. A lot of copyrighted material has passed through Snider’s hard drive. He knows that without access to that content his remixes wouldn’t exist.
“This digital-lock thing is really complicated,” Snider told the Georgia Straight. “If you are not allowed to pull from it [digital media], you are limiting our potential as artists.”
Changes to bring Canada’s copyright laws into the digital age have been in the works since 2005. Previous bills introduced in 2005 and 2008, by the Paul Martin and Harper governments, respectively, died on the floor of the House of Commons when Parliament was dissolved.
Industry Minister Tony Clement and Heritage Minister James Moore announced the introduction of Bill C-32 on June 2. In addition to offering legal protection to companies that use digital locks—also known as technological protection measures—to restrict access to their content, the bill would bring in stronger protections for copyrighted materials and legalize some things many Canadians do every day, like recording television programs for later viewing.
“Digital lock” is a catchall term for the means by which copyright owners control how a piece of content, software, or hardware can be used by others. For example, it’s possible to encrypt files to prevent copying, limit the number of times a music file can be burned onto a CD, and specify which region of the world a DVD can be played in.
Under Bill C-32, cracking the lock placed on a device, disc, or file would be illegal. So if a DVD contains a digital lock, making a backup copy of it, or even moving music from a CD with a lock to an iPod would become a crime with a penalty of between $100 and $5,000.
Snider says he’s struggling to understand where his brand of video art fits in. He knows digital locks can protect copyright owners from piracy but argues that they also create barriers that will deter future video artists.
“They give the guise of trying to be hip,” Snider said of the federal government. “They put in all the buzzwords. But I feel all the power lies with the industry. Artists never see it.”
Michael Geist, a law professor and the Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, agrees with Snider. While Geist believes the government needs to craft copyright laws that better protect artists, consumers, and industry, he maintains that the bill doesn’t accomplish these goals.
“There is virtually no upside from a consumer perspective at all,” Geist told the Straight by phone. “There are a lot of areas where the government has to try and strike a balance, but the fact is there is no balance on the digital locks.”
According to Geist, Bill C-32’s digital-lock measures don’t take into account how average Canadians use digital media. He pointed out that the federal government could fix this problem by adding a line to the legislation saying that it’s legal to circumvent digital locks for purposes that don’t infringe on copyright. This compromise would allow companies to benefit from digital-lock-based business models and consumers to control their media, according to Geist.
“What is so disappointing is that the government could have struck a compromise that would satisfy U.S. pressure about Canada living up to U.S. treaties and would have allowed those businesses to use digital-rights management or use digital locks and would have preserved the balance,” Geist said. “But unfortunately that is not what we got.”
Moore, who besides being heritage minister is also the Conservative MP for Port Moody–Westwood–Port Coquitlam, refused to comment on Bill C-32.
Meanwhile, the bill and its digital-lock provisions are getting rave reviews from the video-game industry.
“We are a little different than a lot of other industries in that our only means of revenue is the sale of our intellectual property,” Danielle Parr, executive director of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, told the Straight by phone from Toronto. “We don’t go on tour, we don’t sell T-shirts. It’s the sale of the actual intellectual property of the video game. So, being able to adequately protect our content is really important.”
According to Parr, legal protection for games with digital locks will stop piracy. She asserted that this will help the industry develop more games.
“A big-named title, now you are looking at $10 to $20 million at least, two years of development, with 100- to 200-person development teams,” Parr said. “There is actually only a small number of games that are actually profitable, and companies need to be able to make money in order to be able to reinvest.”
Snider hopes the digital-lock provisions will be amended as the bill makes its way through Parliament. He has a simpler way of looking at copyrighted materials.
“If you buy something, you should be allowed to use it any way you want,” Snider said.