The stakes of copyright reform

Not many government bills cause so much debate as C-32—the legislation to amend Canada’s Copyright Act—introduced on June 2, 2010. One of C-32’s most contentious innovations is a complete ban on bypassing digital locks on electronic content. James Moore, a federal Minister, said that C-32 offered “a common-sense balance between the interests of consumers and the rights of the creative community.” But his opponents believeMoore’s “common sense” will empower copyright holders and take away traditional rights of consumers.

C-32 is not the first attempt to revise Canada’s Copyright Act. The most recent reform effort began during the previous federal government in 2005. C-32 predecessors, Bills C-60 and C-61, died as a result of a collapsed government and a dissolved parliament. Many opposed the reforms, and Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor, became an intellectual leader of the protest movement.

The government has said the current law is outdated. One letter sent to constituents mentioned that “Canada has been placed on piracy watch lists and our intellectual property protections are compared with those of countries like China, Russia and Dubai.” The government justified the reform by the need to comply with international treaties that it signed on behalf of Canada. There are also allegations that the Canadian government acted under pressure from the US government and the copyright lobby.

This reform will decide issues that ultimately concern everyone. Copyright is an exclusive right to copy or distribute a work. The flip side of someone’s copyright is everyone’s duty to respect it by not copying or distributing the copyright holder’s work without permission. Pretty much any original product of human expression is a work protected by copyright, including movies, music, books, and even your emails.

Copyright’s prohibition on copying would be draconian if some exceptions didn’t exist. Traditionally, “fair dealing” is one. The law has entitled us to copy parts of someone’s work for criticism, review, study, or similar activities. Just like copyright is a right of content owners against content consumers, fair dealing is a right of consumers against owners. Quoting from books, showing films clips, playing song excerpts, photocopying a few pages from a journal are essential to the development of arts and science and to our self-reflection as a society. If we can’t copy anything, we can’t spread information, and curbing the flow of information with constant payments to copyright holders will curb ideas and free expression. Fair dealing is important, and it is our right.

Copyright owners’ or their partners use technological protection measures (TPMs) to limit our right to fair dealing. They can encrypt their content so we can’t copy it. Most DVD films are an example. Owners can use proprietary formats that only sanctioned technology can access. Amazon does it with its e-books, which only Amazon Kindle can open. Hardware makers can restrict their devices to accept only permitted content. Apple screens each and every iPhone application before allowing it into its App Store.

You would expect the law to protect our traditional rights to fair dealing in those cases. And in some countries, to take the example of mobile phone locks, the law regulates or prohibits this practice. But in most countries, including Canada, the law doesn’t stop copyright owners or their partners from locking content or devices up. Such locks would make the right to fair dealing meaningless if circumvention technologies didn’t exist. They allow consumers to bypass digital locks on electronic content.

The big deal about C-32 is that it bans circumvention under penalty of fines or jail. Not only does C-32 ignore TMPs’ gutting of fair dealing rights, but it also punishes those using circumvention for fair dealing. C-32 turns consumers’ fair dealing rights into privileges granted at copyright owners’ discretion. If owners choose to unlock their content, fair dealing is possible. If they use TPMs, it’s not. If C-32 is passed, the independent statutory right to fair dealing will cease to exist.

Some people use circumvention to make illegal copies of movies, music, software, etc. But to choke a long-established right because the entertainment industry loses profits is an overkill. Go after illegal distributors, strengthen enforcement of existing laws but don’t give the copyright lobby powers to regulate fair dealing. Do we as a society want to give so much control over information flow, and by extension essentially over thought and expression, to an industry group?

Pulat Yunusov

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