By Geof Glass
Big media companies are pushing hard to make more activity illegal and to institute extraordinarily harsh penalties. They want your Internet provider to spy on your private communications to make sure you aren’t sharing anything you shouldn’t. They want to terminate your Internet access on the basis of mere accusations of infringement—with no need to prove you did anything wrong. They want to outlaw DVD players capable of playing legally purchased movies from Asia, Europe, or South America. They would allow teachers to critique popular culture without asking for permission—but then force them to destroy the lesson materials, and ensure that all students’ copies are also destroyed.
This is not hyperbole. In the United States, many of these measures are already a reality. Amazon sells electronic books. It went into customers’ e-book readers and deleted books they had paid for. Copyright law was on Amazon’s side: not because the customers had done anything wrong, but because Amazon manufactured the readers. One of the books? George Orwell’s 1984.
An American woman was recently fined $1.9 million for sharing 24 of her favourite songs on-line. The response of the Department of Justice? That the judgement was not “disproportionate to the offense”. Bankers who have cost the economy trillions receive bonuses, while file-sharers are driven to bankruptcy. U.S. copyright law has suffered regulatory capture by media and technology behemoths. The U.S. in turn has threatened Canada with non-cooperation on trade unless we follow its lead on copyright.
Many of these measures were proposed in Bill C-61, introduced in Parliament last year. When Canadians found out what was happening, tens of thousands wrote to their MPs. Appropriation Art, an artists’ group, described the bill as “censorship”. Documentary filmmakers said that the law would block them from commenting on aspects of our politics and culture. Hundreds of Canadian musicians, who had already broken with the American-led Canadian Recording Industry Association over this issue, responded that they saw nothing in this bill for them.
Following the unexpected resistance to C-61, the Canadian government decided to ask Canadians what kind of copyright we want. Until September 13, the government is holding public consultations about what should be in the new law.
This law will affect you. It will shape the kind of society and culture you live in. It will effect fees of up to 25 cents a page to be paid by students to study their own culture (American law exempts educational use). It will determine whether we get to decide how we use our cellphones and our computers, or whether manufacturers can dictate exactly what we can and cannot do—regardless of whether it has anything to do with copyright. It will determine whether artists need permission before they make political and social comment on our society.
All the evidence from around the world is that draconian copyright laws do not work. They fail to stop freeloaders. But they are devastatingly effective at restricting artists and innovators—because they operate in the public eye. People see this. When they see copyright blocking the creativity it is supposed to promote, they lose respect for the law. For copyright law to be effective, it must be respected. To be respected, it must be fair.
I am a member of the Vancouver Fair Copyright Coalition. We want a fair law that benefits all Canadians—artists, innovators, educators, citizens, consumers. At faircopy.ca/, you can find more details. You can download a guide that makes it easy to write a submission reflecting your interests. Please participate in the consultation. Please help our government write a good law.
Geof Glass is a PhD student studying communication at Simon Fraser University, and a professional software developer.