A daily bulletin of news & opinion

12 December 2010

When Canada last revised its copyright laws in 1997, peer-to-peer file sharing was in its infancy, the first iPod was four years away, YouTube eight years, and people still used fax machines.

As a result, the country has since become something of a rogue state in the world of intellectual property. Not long ago US officials derided Canada as a haven for movie piracy, lumping it alongside copyright scofflaw China.

Although a signatory to the World International Property Organization, Canada is the only G7 nation that hasn’t ratified the treaty, or updated its copyright laws for the digital age.

With the Copyright Modernization Bill (C-32) currently before parliament, the Conservative government hopes it can not only live up to its international commitments, but also arrive at some workable compromise between the rights of consumers and the rights of creators who need to be compensated for their work.

In an address to a parliamentary committee reviewing the legislation, industry minister Tony Clement called it “an important brick in the foundation we are building to support the digital economy of tomorrow”.

Among its measures, the bill would enshrine the consumers’ right to copy movies and music they’ve bought onto devices such as MP3 players; prohibit the breaking of digital locks on gadgets and files; and allow the use of copyrighted materials in the making of video or music mash-ups when not done for commercial purposes.

The change generating the most controversy, however, is an expansion in the definition of “fair dealing” ­ instances when copyrighted materials can be used without licence from the copyright holder ­to include education. Publishers and writers worry that the exemption as written is so broad that it could lead to rampant photocopying of textbooks and novels without compensation.

In an op-ed piece for the Globe and Mail newspaper, award-winning novelist Nino Ricci argued that the bill could “punish a vulnerable cultural sector by expropriating the rights of authors and publishers in the name of the public good”.

Not all creators and cultural groups are against the legislation, but it can be hard to tell at times who is on which side. The Canadian Recording Industry Association supports C-32; music artists such as Broken Social Scene and Feist, however, oppose making it easier to sue fans for file sharing, which this bill would do.

Canada has already tried twice in the past five years to revamp its copyright regime, efforts in 2005 and 2008 that died when elections were called. Bill C-32 may suffer a similar fate as rumours swirl of a spring poll. But there¹s optimism something might finally get done. The government has signaled it’s open to amendments.

“This is the closest we’ve come in the 13 years we¹ve been waiting for reform,” says John Degen, a writer who blogs frequently on copyright issues. “Also everyone’s really sick of this issue. People on all sides of the house are intent on getting some compromise passed before it’s too late.”


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