Commentary  Editorial: Copyright this

University of Utah law professor John Tehranian found an average American commits an average of 83 infringements of copyright – exposing themselves to criminal charges and civil liability of $12.45-million – every day. And that’s without downloading any music. Surprisingly, illegal activties include singing Happy Birthday in public, forwarding emails, or taking a photo with a copyrighted work in the background. The U.S. copyright laws responsible for criminalizing such activities may seem far from reality in Canada, but Americans have lobbied so hard that the Canadian government is now trying copy our Southern neighbours.

On June 12, eight days before the government’s summer break, Conservative Industry Minister Jim Prentice introduced his copyright reform bill, C-61. Prentice claimed the proposed legislation – eerily similar to the U.S.’s highly controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) – kept in place consumers’ fair dealing rights: the ability to legally infringe copyright for societal good, such as education, private use, and criticism.

But it quickly became clear that Prentice did not even understand his own legislation. It turns out the digital rights management (DRM) usurps nearly all consumer rights. Distributors can use DRM to stop you from recording a show from TV, transferring music from one computer or device to another, and viewing a European DVD on an American DVD player or a computer system not licensed to view it. So while you would be allowed to access journal articles from a library database for your class, if the publisher added a DRM, it could stop you from saving or printing it for later use. And attempting to get around the lock would cost you a $20,000 fine per infringement.

Copyright, a relatively modern notion, limits citizens’ natural right and impetus to amass and share information, so if society is to give up some of those rights to allow people to profit from their work, we should get an equal or greater benefit in return. Namely, copyright should be designed to encourage people to create content – if a measure does little to encourage new work, it just props up failed, antiquitated business models. All copyright should be analyzed first through this lens, and narrowly tailored to only apply when it benefits society. Exceptions should allow us to ignore copyright when doing so specifically benefits society more than not, such as for research and critical analysis, or when it encourages the creation of more content.

But politicians have been ignoring the public good and instead introducing legal changes that are literally written by record and movie company lawyers, including C-61 and the DMCA. Although some Canadian political parties are much less regressive than others, MPs took only 80 minutes to whisk through a bill to stiffen the penalties to two years in jail for recording even a ten second movie clip with your camera in a theatre. Over 90,000 Canadians have joined Fair Copyright For Canada Facebook group – started by the tireless and commendable University of Ottawa Internet law professor Michael Geist – and although C-61 dissolved along with Parliament, they and many others intend to make copyright a major policy point in the upcoming elections and with the resulting government.

It’s time for all Canadians to make politicians understand that sensible copyright reform – one that puts society’s interests above protecting the failing business model of these large multinational corporations – is long overdue.