My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Canadian Copyright: A Call to Arms

Fair Copyright for Canada

You often hear someone invoke the phrase, "As a __," in which he or she then goes on to name some sort of position or title that gives him or her the ability to voice an opinion on the subject at hand. "As a world leader...," "As a scientist...," "As a schoolteacher...," "As an evil overlord...." Here's something on which we should all have an opinion.

As a person, I value access to information. Many people, especially those my age, do not realize how saturated we are with information (or if you do, you may not understand what that means in a historical context). Go back in time about 550 years. There was a new invention on the scene in Europe: the printing press. The printing press allowed people to do something that, until then, was a very laborious task: it enabled the mass transmission of information in a written form. Prior to then, books were copied out by hand--usually by monks--and few people knew how to read. Most knowledge was passed on orally. And most people had access to very little information compared to what an individual knows today.

Fast forward 550 years back to present day. We have the Internet, a new revolutionary tool in communication. Information transmission is now instantaneous around the world. The average individual is exposed to too much information, to so much information that we have to start learning how to filter it out, both technically and socially. We are exposed to so much information that we take this access for granted. We assume we're entitled to it, just because we have it right now.

Well along with the development of information transmission came another neat idea: intellectual property. That is, the ownership of information and ideas. From this sprung several forms of laws that enshrine the rights of intellectual property owners: copyright and trademarks. But with the proliferation of the Internet, copyright is a whole new ball game. And Canada's copyright legislation is pretty much obsolete. To give you an idea of how outdated our legislation is, here is a fact: recording a TV show on your VCR is illegal. See, that's called time-shifting, and there is nothing explicitly in the Copyright Act that allows you do to that. Likewise, there's nothing that lets you copy a CD to your computer or MP3 player, or record a program using PVR (DVR to those of you in the States).

Last week, the government tabled Bill C-61: An Act to amend the Copyright Act, the long-awaited copyright reform bill--or as some pundits prefer to call it, "the Canadian DMCA." And those pundits have good reason.

Bill C-61 is supposed to update the Copyright Act for the new millennium, spruce it up, and clarify exactly what we can and can't do with content in an era where copying someone else's information is as easy as point-and-click. And to be fair, Bill C-61 does some of this. Let's take a look at the fact sheets. Time shifting and format shifting ... good. Oh look, private copying of music. Good. Wait ... "digital locks"? What's that. What? Oh my.

In what is largely regarded as a massive concession to the music, movie, and telecom industries, the amended Act would make it illegal to circumvent a digital lock with a fine up to $20 000. In other words, if you bought a CD with a digital lock on it and then copied it to your computer using a program to circumvent the lock, you could be fined $20 000 in damages. What I really don't like, however, is the fact that this lends legitimacy to digital locks--it practically encourages corporate content distributors to lock up everything. Broadcasters could place locks on their television content so that you couldn't record it on your PVR unit--and I don't know about you, but I enjoy my PVR unit. And this kind of defeats the purpose of having time-shifting and format-shifting in the first place, if everything will just be under lock and key. :-/

It's depressing, that's what it is. We are supposed to be moving forward with copyright legislation. We have to embrace the new technology, not fear it. We have come to praise Caesar! Instead, the Conservative government has folded to pressure from the industry and pressure from the U.S. government to create a bill that will turn common Canadians into criminals. You may think I'm overreacting, but I'm not. It isn't just the fines. Look at the highly restrictive educational provisions. How are teachers supposed to educate students--future leaders of the country--if they can't access the content they need to do so?

It is entirely possible to create legislation that protects the rights of content creators--be they individuals, groups, corporations, or sentient potato salads--and protects the rights of consumers and content users. The overwhelming majority of content creators want their content to be used--that's why it's out there. Most just want to be compensated for it in some way, whether it is just recognition, or money, or a fancy theme song. And most Canadians, I think, would be happy to give them that theme song. If Bill C-61 passes, people are still going to download music and movies. People may even download more music and movies than ever before, because rather than giving Canadians a legal way to access this content, the amendment leaves us with no other choice but to pursue less legitimate ways of acquiring the content.

Our obsession with intellectual property and ownership of ideas and information is bordering on the precipice of absurdity here. So we need to do something about it.

I don't know how many Canadians read this blog (probably about 15 people in total, so maybe ... 3 Canadians?), but most of my Facebook friends are Canadian, and they might read this in my Facebook notes, so this is me doing my part. I am spreading the word and encouraging my friends to get involved. Write a letter to your Member of Parliament, to Josée Verner, Minister of Heritage, to Jim Prentice, Minister of Industry, and to the Prime Minister. You can send an email, but a regular physical letter is harder to ignore--remember, it's free to send mail to your MP.

Copyright for Canadians has some excellent resources, including a template for the letter that you can automatically send to your MP, Jim Prentice, and Josée Verner. It will take less than 5 minutes, so at the very least, you could do that.

If you're interested in learning more about Canadian copyright, read FairCopyright.ca. Michael Geist is keeping track of various developments in the bill, such as reactions from the press and public, and government responses.

We have to send a message to the government that they can't just ignore the public and table legislation without consulting us, the people who elected this so-called representative democracy. The Conservatives ran on the platform of accountability after the number of Liberal scandals, but now they have broken that core campaign promise and chosen to instead side with the big guys with money instead of the ordinary Canadian citizen. So take ten minutes out of your day, send your MP a letter, and know that even if the bill passes, you at least tried. Those who watch an injustice being perpetrated and do nothing to stop it are just as culpable as those who perpetrate the injustice itself.