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New Canadian Copyright Bill C-32: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, And What To Do About It

As expected, the Canadian government tabled a new copyright bill today. Despite the consultation last summer, rumour has it that Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore and Industry Minister Tony Clement—the two cabinet ministers responsible for copyright (who seemed to understand the new opportunities technology presents)—couldn’t come to an agreement, and the Prime Minister’s Office sided with Moore’s more hard-line approach. Yet, it appears Clement’s influence was not lost. The proposed legislation, Bill C-32, actually contains many good provisions… but strict digital lock restrictions threaten to undo them all.

Fair Dealing—There’s An Exception For That

The current Canadian concept of fair dealing is more limited that the American doctrine of fair use. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that it should be interpreted broadly, but present law restricts fair dealing to just five categories—research, private study, criticism, news reporting, and review. NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus had tabled a private member’s bill to introduce flexible fair dealing back in March, but with Moore’s vision winning out over Clement’s, Bill C-32 rejects flexible fair dealing.

But, it does contain a host of new exceptions for parody and satire, education, time shifting, formating shifting, and backup copies. There’s even a new “Non-Commercial User-generated Content” exception (29.21), which would legalize mashups and remixes under certain circumstances.

While the litany of exceptions fails to introduce real flexibility into the law for new innovations, Michael Geist—leading critic of the last, failed copyright bill—still describes this as “a pretty good compromise.” There are those who strongly oppose the uncertainty that comes with flexibility, so maybe the “there’s an exception for that” approach is the best we can hope for right now.

Though not perfect, it’s still a positive development, and definitely an improvement on the past.

Other Good Compromises

Geist notes two other good compromises. As with the last two copyright bills, C-32 would implement a notice-and-notice system for Internet Service Providers to handle copyright infringement allegations, rather than the guilty-until-proven-innocent American notice-and-takedown system, or the insanely disproportionate three-accusations-and-you’re-kicked-off-the-internet approach. Also, a change to the statutory damages provision would finally distinguish between large scale counterfeiting and non-commercial infringement, limiting the latter between $100-$5000 instead of the current $20,000 maximum. While $5000 per infringement is still pretty ridiculous, cutting the maximum down by 75% for non-commercial infringement would be a positive development.

The Downright Terrible: Digital Lock Provisions Undo The Exceptions

The huge loophole in this bill is the approach to anti-circumvention provisions, which would make it illegal to break a digital lock even if what you are doing is otherwise non-infringing. It’s important to understand how this massively undermines any good which might come from additional fair dealing exceptions: if there’s a digital lock, the exceptions are meaningless. Bill C-32’s rigid digital lock provisions undo the exceptions.

  • Want to make a backup copy? There’s an exception for that… unless there’s a digital lock!
  • Want to transfer songs to your iPod? There’s an exception for that… unless there’s a digital lock!
  • Want to make use of copyrighted content in the classroom? There’s an exception for that… unless there’s a digital lock!
  • Want to remix Louis Armstrong with death metal? There’s an exception for that… unless there’s a digital lock!

This has to change. More importantly, it doesn’t have to be this way. Submissions to last summer’s consultation were overwhelmingly opposed to this approach. Other countries have met their international obligations with anti-circumvention provisions that are actually linked to copyright infringement (e.g. New Zealand‘s passed law, India‘s proposed law). With a flexible anti-circumvention provision, the exceptions would apply to digital locks too.

Why should companies be able to rewrite copyright law and trump exceptions simply because they slap a digital lock onto something? If there’s a backup exception, there should be a backup exception. If there’s allowance for parody and satire, no digital lock should be able to take that away. And what’s the use of a format shifting exception if digital locks will force you to repurchase your content to stay legal anyways?

Canada needs to have a flexible anti-circumvention approach that is actually linked to infringement, or none of the compromises in this bill even matter.

Other Nasty Things

There’s an inducement clause (27 (2.3)) which would make it illegal to provide a service online “that a person knows or should have known is designed primarily to enable acts of copyright infringement.” Would the Internet-equivalent of a VCR pass that test? What about BitTorrent? Both technologies can be used to enable acts of copyright infringement, but they also have legitimate uses. How the “primary use” is determined could have significant implications here.

The time shifting provision (29.23) warrants further review, as it contains a variety of conditions under which you can record a program for later viewing. For example, the bill would require that you “keep the recording no longer than is reasonably necessary in order to listen to or view the program at a more convenient time”—seemingly, a requirement to get rid of recordings once you’ve listened to/watched them.

Also, library provisions allowing for distribution are subject to digital locks, and contain a requirement for copies to be destroyed within five days.

There are lots of details like this in this bill that require further study, and most likely revision.

The Strategy: Let’s Make Some Noise

The Conservatives are seeking support on this bill from the Liberals. Liberal Industry critic, MP Marc Garneau, is keen to work with the government to introduce a new law, and is open to the possibility of summer hearings to get it passed. But Clement told the CBC, “I’m not coming down from the mountain with this chiselled in stone… we could seek some consensus and there could be some positive amendments to this bill.”

When I met with my MP, Liberal Joe Volpe, over Bill C-61 in the summer of 2008, his main question to me was whether to scrap the bill or to fix it. Critically, We must let our MPs know—especially the Liberals—which compromises are acceptable, and which undermine the entire copyright bargain. Flexible fair dealing would have been better than a litany of exceptions, but that compromise could work. However, allowing digital locks to undo those exceptions is simply unacceptable.

Conclusion

Politics is the art of the possible, a complex art of balance between ideals and interests. This bill isn’t perfect, but there is a push from both sides of the floor to get it passed. There are a lot of good compromises, but whether or not the bad provisions get fixed could have huge implications on Canadian culture, technology and business in the years to come. Make your voice heard.

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