By Charlie Angus
So what should we make of the Conservative government’s sudden interest in consulting the public over copyright? For the past three years, this government kept the process firmly hidden behind closed doors. The result has been a massive backlash from educators, artists, research innovators, and average citizens.
The push back certainly shocked the government. But it shouldn’t have. In a digital age, everyone is implicated in the issue of copyright.
Every day, Canadians cut and paste, make copies, and create multimedia PowerPoint presentations. They share clips of their favourite videos on YouTube and download their favourite TV shows onto iPods. Who controls these works or is entitled to remuneration for such copying has become a major stress point in the ongoing development of digital culture.
What has become abundantly clear is that an empowered public is not going to sit back and allow a small group of corporate lobbyists to define the terms of the copyright debate.
So how much faith should we put in the consultations? While there is certainly some room for skepticism over the effectiveness of Tony Clement and James Moore’s barnstorming tour in summer, I am more than willing to wish them well. Despite the heated rhetoric, the opportunity to create some progressive legislation on copyright may be at hand.
Over the last five years, there has been a slow but steady movement between the various “armed camps” on copyright. When I speak with artists groups or consumer advocates, there is a growing recognition of the need to move beyond the rhetoric and get the legislation rolling.
Needless to say, the corporate lobbyists continue to attempt to define the debate as in apocalyptic terms. To them, Canada is a haven of “pirates”, “thieves”, and “bootleggers”. But the Chicken Little approach to copyright is wearing thin. Put simply, people aren’t buying it anymore. All we have to do is look south of the border to see the results of corporate-driven copyright legislation. Earlier this summer, an American single mother was smacked with a US$1.92-million judgment for trading a batch of Gloria Estefan and Green Day MP3s.
This outrageous penalty is just the latest Pyrrhic victory in the Recording Industry Association of America’s attempt to prop up an outdated business model. Should legislators be dragged down this dead-end road? Certainly not. The most important lesson Canadian legislators can learn from the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act is that creating “tough” laws are not the same as creating “effective” laws.
This is why the Conservative’s first attempt at Bill C-61 failed. The copyright bill deliberately blurred the line between corporate counterfeiting and legitimate personal use of digital products. It was bulky, unenforceable, and ultimately ridiculous. Hopefully, the Conservatives are learning that in order for a law to be enforceable it must have a level of public legitimacy and buy-in. To have buy-in, public consultation is a prerequisite.
Is it possible to find a balance in the digital age? Most definitely. It’s about finding the balance between two important principles: artists have a moral right over their work and deserve to be remunerated for this work; at the same time, consumers, academics, and researchers have a right to access these works with minimal restrictions.
Copyright legislation must also differentiate the personal use of copyrighted works from criminal acts of infringement and counterfeiting. As well, we must make the overriding goal the continued innovation of the digital world.
Is there political will to make this happen? This remains to be seen. But if the Conservatives fail, it will be because they haven’t seized the opportunities at hand. As one American expert in copyright law said to me recently, given the clear examples of failed copyright policy in the United States, Canada has the chance “to get it right”.
Charlie Angus is the NDP critic for digital issues and the MP for Timmins-James Bay in Ontario.