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SOCAN Tries To Keep Its Copyright Consultation Submission Offline And Secret, But Fails

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

We were just talking about how SOCAN, the Canadian copyright collection society, was going after gymnastics clubs for kids using music in their practice routines. Now they’re getting some well-deserved attention for other antics. Michael Geist explains how SOCAN tried to keep its submission to the government copyright consultation secret. The organization apparently requested that its submission not be posted online, even though that was part of the consultation process. The government made it available anyways, but only by email upon request. Of course, it’s now available online elsewhere [PDF].

SOCAN’s recommendations aren’t surprising. They call for a making available right (article 22 of the submission), a broadening of the private copying levy (article 30), anti-circumvention provisions (55-56), notice-and-takedown (59), copyright term extension (60), and no further exceptions to copyright (34, 48). But rather than outright declaring war on consumers, they copy the language (poorly) of those seeking more effective copyright reform. For example, they claim that the “rights of users and creators” are already “balanced” because “the Copyright Board of Canada provides a fair mechanism to set the royalty” (45) — someone had better tell the gymnastic clubs! Another great example: They want to expand the private copying tax levy to digital audio players so that it’s “technologically neutral.” (11) No word on when they’ll want it to apply to hard drives in general. SOCAN also repeats the ridiculous argument from the Toronto copyright townhall that “unwarranted” fair dealing provisions would mean asking creators to “work for nothing:”

Copyright amendments must not set up unwarranted exemptions, or otherwise limit the copyright royalties paid… If you deprive SOCAN’s members of copyright royalties, you are basically asking over 35,000 Canadian individuals to take risks and work for nothing. That’s not realistic, and it’s not fair. (34-35)

It’s just laughable to suggest that more flexible fair dealing (i.e., something like the American concept of fair use) would mean artists not getting paid. Do artists “work for nothing” in the U.S.? Though, it should be no surprise from an organization that claims that, if you use a Creative Commons license, you “won’t get paid” and your work may become devalued. To a collection society, getting paid can only mean royalties, and the value of music can only mean… well, royalties.

Best of all, they seem nervous about Industry Minister Tony Clement, who’s given some indication that he wants to craft forward thinking policies. SOCAN recommends that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage have sole responsibility for copyright reform (article 66). The Heritage committee is involved in the process, but as Geist points out, this recommendation betrays some discomfort with Clement and the Industry Committee, since the Copyright Act clearly grants the Minister of Industry responsibility for copyright. So, first, we get a laundry list of maximalist demands using the language of “balanced” copyright reform, then a suggestion to ignore the Copyright Act and exclude the ministry they’re not comfortable with (you know, the one focusing on the economic concerns) from having any responsibility in reform? No wonder they wanted to keep the submission secret.

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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Copyright Consultation Submission

I submitted the following to the Canadian Copyright Consultation, a little hastily as midnight approached on the initial deadline. It’s built off the same notes I used to speak from at the townhall.

Copyright matters to me for a variety of reasons. I’m a musician, writer and programming. I was recently a student at the University of Toronto. I’m a consumer, a computer user. In my work and leisure I interact with the Copyright Act in hundreds of ways each day.

Copyright is a set of social relationships, an incentive that the government provides to creators on behalf of the public, for the benefit of all (including creators). Talk about balance can be misleading, if we consider it a zero sum game. In reality, with the right approach to copyright law, everyone should be better off (like any good economic transaction) — creators for having tools available which they can use to earn an income, the public for having more works created.

Copyright isn’t inherently good. It’s not simply, “the more copyright, the better.” The right approach to copyright depends on keeping these broader goals and interests in mind.

Some specific suggestions:

1. Abolish Crown Copyright.

The government doesn’t need to hold copyright on the works it creates. The government already has an incentive to create those works. It’s called an election.

2. Don’t extend copyright any further.

Copyright term should not be extended. There are already legitimate questions as to whether it is too long in many respects now. That’s a discussion and debate for another time. For now, we should commit to not extending it any further.

3. Flexible fair dealing.

Simply adding the words “such as” to the Copyright Act, making the categories of fair dealing non-exhaustive, would be a huge step forward. The Supreme Court has already ruled that fair dealing should be interpreted broadly, and this would allow for things like parody or satire under fair dealing, making the law in tune with how many creators operate in this country already.

4. Technology Neutral Approach.

Don’t ban specific tools or technologies. I use peer-to-peer file sharing technologies to access and distribute materials — both music and software — released under free licences, like the GNU GPL or the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licence. There are artists and creators who use these technologies to legitimately distribute their works and reach a wider audience (even the CBC has distributed content through BitTorrent). If the record and movie industry had their way, technologies like the VCR would illegal. Clearly, these technologies can prove to be useful to both creators and the public over time, and can create new business opportunities as well.

Any changes to copyright law should focus on the act of infringement, rather than banning tools which may or may not be used to infringe copyright.

5. Any anti-circumvention laws should be tied to actual infringement.

There are plenty of problems with anti-circumvention laws, but if we are going to introduce them in Canada, they must be tied to actual infringement of copyright. Breaking a digital lock for an activity that would otherwise not be considered an infringement of copyright should not be an infringement of copyright. I need to break digital locks to access materials all the time. For example, I’m a GNU/Linux user, and I need to circumvent the digital lock inherent in the DVD format just to watch a movie on my computer.

Don’t ban circumvention tools — there are plenty of legitimate uses, and plenty of uses for them within the realm of fair dealing. Any anti-circumvention restrictions should be tied explicitly to acts of infringement.

6. Don’t implement an ISP levy.

I’m a member of the Songwriters Association of Canada. They do great work for Canadian songwriters. But don’t implement their proposal to “monetize file sharing.” It’s untenable and undesirable on a variety of levels: what if someone doesn’t download unauthorized content? what about movies, poetry, newspapers, and other content that’s shared online? how would money be distributed fairly (the internet is much different than radio, with a long tail of artists producing content)?

Plus, artists are already monetizing file sharing. Artists and companies are doing it right now. Canadian songwriter and musician Brad Turcotte, for example, uses the promotion he gets through Frostwire (a peer-to-peer file sharing application) to connect with fans, grow his audience so that he can book shows and sell merchandise.

Also, why would we increase the cost of connecting to the internet in a country that already suffers from limited broadband competition, and when broadband penetration is another important technological concern?

7. Don’t extend the levy to digital audio players.

Many creator groups have called for the levy to be extended to digital audio players. That would be a huge mistake, and it would be in direct contradiction to “withstanding the test of time.”

For example, the proposed levy on digital audio players in 2002 was $21/GB. That would make a levy on an 120 GB iPod today $2520! Certainly, the Canadian Private Copying Collective could lower the cost over time, but that would likely be in reaction to an increased absurdity. Adding a levy on digital audio players would discourage investment in that sort of technology in Canada, and inhibit the ability of Canadian creators to offer new business models (if it’s less affordable for Canadian consumers to acquire digital audio players, how are Canadian artists supposed to implement digital business models?).

Also, the digital audio player space is rapidly converging with other areas of computing. With Android devices and iPhones, the distinction between digital audio players and cell phones is quickly becoming a thing of the past, and netbooks and tablet computers are rapidly blurring the lines between mobile and laptop computing. To imposed a levy on “digital audio players” — whatever that will include 5 years from now — would be extremely short-sighted from the perspective of encouraging innovation and investment in new technologies in Canada, and all the new business opportunities which can be had from their widespread adoption.

8. Don’t legislate business models.

On that note, as a broader point, the Copyright Act should not legislate specific business models. Copyright can provide tools for creators to build a business model on, but, for example, in the area of music, much success in the digital environment has been had by ignoring rights granted by copyright (e.g. letting fans distribute music or remix it), rather than following the route copyright law would suggest (e.g. excluding others from those rights).

In order to foster innovation and creativity, the Copyright Act must not stand as a barrier to new ways of doing business and to new business models in the digital era. We don’t yet know what sort of system will support artists going forward. Rather than trying to build one into the law, the law should enabled creators and entrepreneurs to experiment with new business models suited for a digital environment — whether that means providing tools, or simply getting out of the way. A copyright law that is too prescriptive, with too many restrictions and too many assumptions about a particular business model (e.g. selling copies) runs the risk of impeding innovative business models that may take a different approach.

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