Geek Speak: Geof Glass, cofounder of Vancouver Fair Copyright Coalition

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      Geof Glass is concerned that a planned overhaul of Canadian copyright law will harm creators and consumers. The 37-year-old Burnaby resident is a cofounder of the Vancouver Fair Copyright Coalition.

      On June 2, Minister of Industry Tony Clement and Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore announced the introduction of Bill C-32, also known as the Copyright Modernization Act. The legislation proposes amendments to the Copyright Act in order to bring it into the digital age. One of the most contentious provisions would make it illegal to circumvent technological protection measures, or digital locks, that restrict the use of copyrighted material, such as movies, music, software, and video games.

      Born in Ottawa, Glass has been a professional software developer since 1991. As a PhD student in the school of communication at Simon Fraser University, he studies the on-line commons. His coalition plans to raise awareness and write letters to MPs about issues concerning the legislation.

      The Georgia Straight reached Glass by phone in Victoria.

      How would you describe copyright to somebody?

      Well, the original 1710 Statute of Anne in England, when modern copyright was really invented, was partly subtitled—or the subtitle began—An Act for the Encouragement of Learning. So, the purpose of copyright is actually to encourage cultural creativity and the creation of intellectual works, which benefits society at large. It was, the bill detailed, designed to ensure that artists didn’t starve, which was a real problem back in 1710. So, I’d say it’s intended to benefit both artists and consumers, and society at large.

      What concerns you most about Bill C-32, the Copyright Modernization Act?

      I think the big matter of concern is digital locks. There are actually a few improvements in the bill. For example, it would legalize copying for satire and parody. Now, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show in the United States uses clips from network television to make political points, but in Canada that’s technically illegal right now. This bill would legalize that.

      Unfortunately, that and many of the other things that are permitted under Canadian copyright law would be trumped by digital locks. So, although you might technically be allowed to copy the material to make political comment or for research purposes (you might take a quote from Shakespeare; we do copying quite frequently for legitimate purposes), if there’s a digital lock on that content, it might suddenly become illegal—even though you’re not really infringing copyright.

      What’s positive about the legislation?

      Well, I think the satire-and-parody exemption is a big one. I think that’s a really good thing to have. There’s a lot of creativity and important cultural and political comment that can be based on satire and parody. There are also improvements like legalizing videotaping of televisions shows, which is somewhat overdue and almost moot at this point. But, still, I think it’s good to write a law that conforms with what people expect the law is and should be.

      The notice-and-notice regime would also be very good. The issue there is whether ISPs and service providers are responsible for the activities of their users. So, if I use Google or I use some other Web site, and I paste or I put something up on-line that infringes copyright, am I responsible or are they also responsible? What the notice-and-notice provision does is says that, if the copyright holder finds infringement on-line, they can notify the ISP, and the ISP is required to pass that notice on to me. Then they are no longer liable for the infringement, or they are shielded from liability for the infringement.

      This is really good because it’s simply not practical for your ISP—for example, Telus or Rogers—or Google to track everything that happens on their network and make sure that it’s not infringing. So, we want to enable them to do their job effectively, but we want to make sure that there’s a recourse when infringement happens.

      What role do you think digital locks should play in copyright protection?

      Well, on the one hand, I think—even without protection, even without this law making it illegal to circumvent digital locks—digital locks can do a fair bit of harm. What they effectively do is they create monopolies for equipment manufacturers.

      So, the example I would give is Apple’s iPad has a digital lock on it that makes it so that you need permission from Apple to install software on your iPad. So, if I wrote a piece of software and I sold it to you, and you owned the iPad and you paid for my software, you wouldn’t be able to install my software without Apple’s permission or you’d have to work around the lock.

      Now, even in Canada today without this law, you’d have difficulty doing that, because you’d need to find a way to work around the lock. What that does is it creates control over that channel of distribution, which limits your ability to control the technology that you own and that you paid for. From artists’ point of view, it may lead to situations where they have limited opportunities for distributing their work, unless they submit to whatever the requirements are from the technology owners. So, digital locks currently can actually cause a fair bit of harm.

      On the other hand, I don’t know that you can simply outlaw technology companies from putting this kind of technology on their devices. If Apple wants to put this technology in the iPad, it’d be difficult to craft a law that would restrict that without restricting a lot of useful innovation that could be done. But I think protecting the digital lock is a bad idea.

      What’s something I might be doing now that will become illegal if the bill is passed?

      If you watch DVDs from another country—there’s some DVD players that allow you to sort of hack around the region locks, so if you have a DVD from Japan or Europe—that could become illegal. There’s some CDs that have protections on them. It might be illegal to copy that content to your iPod. If you have an iPhone and you’ve unlocked it, that could become illegal—jail breaking.

      There have been companies that have sold content on-line, like videos, and then they later discontinued the servers that authenticate that content. So, although you’ve bought some video or you think you bought it, they shut down that line of business and you can’t watch what you paid for anymore. Well, there are ways of working around that, but that could become illegal. If you backed up a DVD, that could become illegal.

      How will the bill affect how Canadians enjoy music?

      Although I mentioned music as an example of digital locks on material that you copy to your iPod, the music industry in general has actually been moving away from digital locks for a couple of reasons. First, consumers really don’t like them.

      But I think the key problem they had was that Apple obtained a very large share of the market with their iTunes Store, and music that was sold through iTunes was locked to only work with Apple technology. So, if you bought iTunes music, you could only play it on iTunes music players, and if you had iTunes music players, you could only buy locked music from iTunes.

      It was incompatible with other locked formats, which is a typical problem here. You either end up with a monopoly or you end up with a very fragmented marketplace. So, the music industry shifted away from digital locks, because they didn’t want Apple controlling their business. I think the result has actually been a great success in digital music sales.

      So, I’m not sure that this will have a very large effect on music, because that industry has already changed. But you never know. There’s constant innovation and they may try to put locks back in again, and that might have an impact. But I don’t know what that would be right now.

      What are a couple major changes that you’d like to see made to the bill?

      I think the digital-locks provisions. There’s a stated desire by most parties to adhere to—we signed the WIPO treaties back in the ’90s. If we ratify those treaties—signature doesn’t mean we have to—we have to provide some protection for digital locks. I’d like to see a measure that makes it illegal to circumvent digital locks in order to circumvent copyright. So, tie the law so that circumvention for other, legitimate purposes is not illegal. That’s the first big change I’d like to see.

      I’d like see, ideally, broader fair dealing. The addition of satire and parody is very good, and we also have a measure to allow remixes, like YouTube mash-ups, under certain circumstances. But, as the technology changes and as culture changes and finds more uses for creative works, there have been proposals to allow those provisions to be a little bit broader. I think that would be good.

      Also, I don’t think the bill removes Crown copyright, which is a very strange thing in the system. When the government creates material, it’s covered by copyright. But copyright is supposed to provide an incentive for artists. I don’t think that the government needs an incentive to do what they do, and they’re supposed to do it for the benefit of all Canadians. If something is secret, we have laws to deal with that. So, I think the elimination of Crown copyright could allow wider use of government data and information by news organizations, by academics, and by other people who can use it to learn things and understand our society better.

      So, those are three changes I would suggest. But the digital-locks one is, by far, the most important.

      Why should Canadians care about this?

      I think artists actually have something to lose here, and a number of them have said that. There have been artists who have said that this kind of digital-lock provision is effectively censorship, because some artists—pop artists or people who make collages, people who make documentaries—depend on using existing material for their work, which in the case of documentaries can certainly be culturally and politically important.

      I think they’re kind of caught in a bind. On the one hand, I don’t think that this is actually going to stop infringement, because we’ve seen in the United States, which passed these kinds of measures a dozen years ago, that copyright infringement has increased. On the other hand, they’ll be restricted from many of the things they might do. Canadians have long been worried about the vibrancy of our cultural industries. I think that creating this kind of control over distribution effectively makes it difficult for small and independent Canadian creators to compete with larger organizations, which are mostly from other countries, particularly the United States.

      Another effect I’m concerned about is that there are a lot of people that don’t want these provisions. We had a consultation last summer, which is to the government’s credit. A significant majority of the comments opposed this kind of digital-locks provision, and only a few of the comments supported it.

      If people find that copyright is actually making things illegal that have nothing to do with infringing copyright or harming artists, they may lose respect for the law and choose to copy more. We can’t really be in everybody’s home monitoring them to ensure that they follow the law. So, I think, in the long term, this may actually hurt copyright and artists, from that point of view.

      But my biggest concern, I suppose, is that we have a tremendous opportunity with the new technologies, the cheap video cameras, the widespread Internet access, and computers that allow people to participate in our culture. But our model of controlled distribution risks going back to what we had in the 20th century, which was essentially a centralized, mass-media model of culture. That happened for good reasons. The technology was inherently very expensive. Broadcast TV stations, printing presses—they’re expensive, and they tend to centralize. But now we have an opportunity for a much more participatory culture.

      In an area where we have a lot of concentration in media ownership, I think it’s really important to have that alternative and that social participation. I think that, as people participate in their culture and in their society and become more involved, they become more responsible citizens. I suspect that participation in culture is a first step to participating in other socially important things. But if we’re just put in a situation of pure consumerism culture—being expected to watch and listen but not speak—I don’t think that’s healthy in a democracy. That’s a long answer.

      Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? Tell Stephen Hui on Twitter at



      Andrea Coutu

      Jul 28, 2010 at 6:59pm

      I can see the point of digital locks in some sense - there's really no incentive for artists to create if their material is just going to end up on Youtube without any compensation. Everybody has to make a living. But there has to be balance or people will just find workarounds, making the locks useless.

      I'd be interested in hearing how the increasing use of patents on intellectual property and business processes will affect us, too. I'm a writer and consultant, so I suppose I am keenly interested in intellectual property and content. But I believe these laws are shifting society and that they're worthy of discussion.

      Andrea @ Consultant Blog


      Aug 3, 2010 at 11:55pm

      I could also see the point of TPM style "digital locks", if they worked. But by design, they can't and don't.

      Point 1. In the digital world, if you can access it, you can copy it. If you can play it, you can copy it.
      Point 2. TPM/DRM as implemented in most of the copyright industry can't work as a copy control, by design. Here's an example to show why:

      You can assign a password to your computer. You can even encrypt files that require a password or passphrase to access them. But if you give that password/phrase to someone, they can not only access the files they can copy them. Your computer is the "lock" (with it's software), the files are the content being "protected", and the password/phrase is the "key".

      TPM as used in most of the copyright industry hands the content and the key out to everyone on the same media, the DVD or digital file. The "lock" is built into the DVD player or computer software. All that anyone needs to do to "copy" that protected content is to figure out how the lock works, and they have a working version right in front of them as an example to work from. Child's play, almost literally.

      So the "protection" supplied by these digital locks isn't very effective, and will never be. Legal protection for something as flimsy as DRM/TPM won't really help the artist in the face or our changing society.

      What we need, is to face reality. Copyright isn't the first industry or business that has been changed by the internet and digital technology. It won't be the last. Even we as individuals have been changed, and will continue to do so. Our values shift. Things that were hard to do in the past are now easily done, and we therefore do it often without really thinking about it. It's not necessarily better or worse, but it's definitely different.

      I don't know what the answer to the artist's and copyright holder's dilemma will be. It won't be stronger laws that less and less reflect the reality of our shifting societal values. We are living through a revolutionary phase as big as the invention of the Guttenberg printing press (mass producing books). It took 100 years for that societal change to settle down. We can do it in half that time if we learn from history. The answers will come from experiments to see what works, what is valuable in our new society. I can't predict which will succeed and which will fail. I don't think anyone can.

      Yes, it's a big unknown. But artists, and businesses based on copyright, aren't the first ones to face the challenges of modern technology and the internet and the society shifts that it enables. You still may not succeed by trying new things, you certainly won't succeed by ignoring it, or attempting to turn the clock backwards. The trick is to ignore the technology, and play into the society shifts that technology has enabled. Become relevant to today's world.