Recently, I was surprised to learn that I’m a lawbreaker. I haven’t been convicted—not yet. But I’ve been committing crimes for years without knowing it.
And you may have been too.
When I record Family Guy to watch later in the evening, after my young daughter has gone to bed, I’m breaking the law. I broke the law when I ripped Feist’s The Reminder to my computer so I could listen to “1234” on my iPod. In each case, I violated Canada’s Copyright Act.
These are examples of time and format shifting. I pay for the television signal that comes into my apartment, and I believe I should have the right to record a show now and watch it next week. I believe that when I purchase a CD, I should have the right to listen to those songs on any device I want. But I don’t have those rights. In other countries such actions are allowed under the concept of fair use. In Canada, we talk about fair dealing, but our copyright laws don’t give us much freedom to use the content we pay for.
Bringing Canada’s copyright legislation up-to-date is on the Conservative government’s agenda. Responsibility for the reform rests with Industry Minister Jim Prentice, along with Josée Verner, minister of Canadian heritage, with whom he would table the legislation.
While we don’t know exactly what is in Prentice’s legislation, noted copyright and Internet-law expert Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, says there is sufficient evidence to inform speculation about what the minister has planned. Critics such as Geist don’t expect Prentice’s bill to amend the concept of fair dealing, which means that using your digital video recorder will still be illegal. And if you want to listen to a CD on anything other than a CD player, unless it includes additional files, you’ll be expected to buy it in other formats.
It’s what Prentice is likely to add to our copyright law that is dangerous. It’s thought that he wants to bring in anticircumvention provisions, which would make it illegal to work around or break digital locks. So a blind student who wants to run an audio book through her voice reader could be prosecuted for using software to circumvent the audio book’s digital-rights management. Converting your iTunes-purchased music into a format you can play on a non-iPod MP3 player could also land you in court.
DRM technologies also pose a risk to privacy because they can collect information about users to be sent to the copyright holder without a user’s knowledge. It’s a serious enough issue that Canada’s privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, recently sent a letter to Prentice and Verner warning that permitting such data collection would threaten the privacy of Canadians.
Digital locks are a blunt tool: they are used to protect copyrighted content, but are unable to make exceptions for the professor who is conducting legitimate, legal research, the journalist writing film criticism, or the comedian using television clips in a parody.
Prentice has met with the U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, to talk about copyright reform. He’s met with lobbyists for the American entertainment industry. But he’s ignored requests to hear the concerns of Canadian educators, librarians, musicians, artists, consumer-rights groups, and technologists.
The U.S. media corporations want Canada to mirror that country’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In the 10 years since the act came into effect, more than 20,000 individuals have been sued by the recording industry for copyright infringement. How much of the “recovered” money was passed on to the artists who wrote and performed that music? No one knows for sure, but precious little, if any.
In a news release, Steven Page, member of the Barenaked Ladies and representative of the Canadian Music Creators Coalition (other members include Feist, Avril Lavigne, Sarah McLachlan, Broken Social Scene, and Sloan), quipped, “It’s shortsighted to say ”˜See you in court’ one day and ”˜See you at Massey Hall’ the next. If record labels want to try and sue fans, we hope that they’ll have the courtesy to stop trying to do it in our names.” The CMCC is one of several groups that have called upon the government to come up with a made-in-Canada response to copyright reform.
The industry minister has said that his intent is to get Canada in line with a World Intellectual Property Organization treaty we signed in 1997. But the draconian measures he is expected to propose far exceed what is required to ratify the treaty.
In Canada, using measures like CanCon requirements, we go to great lengths to ensure that our creators, be they musicians, writers, or artists, have an opportunity to make their voices heard over the din to the south. Bending over to American interests when it comes to copyright would invalidate those efforts. Which makes me wonder why we haven’t heard a peep from Verner, the minister of Canadian heritage. Neither of the ministers’ offices responded to telephone requests from the Straight for an interview. And neither has addressed Canadians’ concerns about copyright reform.
Somehow, what would normally be a dry and boring subject has become a hot-button issue. The listeners of CBC Radio’s Search Engine program came up with a list of 250 questions to ask Prentice, and when he ignored an invitation to appear on the show, about 50 people showed up at his constituency Christmas party to ask questions in person. The Facebook group Geist started back in December, Fair Copyright for Canada, had 15,000 members within 10 days of launching, and now has nearly 40,000.
Prentice and Verner planned to introduce the legislation on December 11, but it was delayed, some suggest due to public outcry. In a recent e-mail exchange, Geist said that his sources expect the bill to be introduced early in the new parliamentary session, which began on January 28.
The Conservative government, it seems, just wants the bill tabled, and will deal with the consequences afterward. I wonder if they’re ready to lose a federal election. That’s one hell of a consequence.