While it’s probably just a coincidence that a bill regarding Canada’s copyright law arrived just as TV series Lost ended, there are some eerie similarities between the two situations. After all, in both cases, parties with a habit of disappointing people—network TV on one hand, and the Federal Government on the other—put forth something that, for all intents and purposes, looked really promising, only to ruin it at the very end.
This seems to be the case with Bill C-32, which, while a step forward in some ways, promises to restrict and constrain how Canadians access and manipulate electronic media. The bill, which was tabled by Minister of Industry Tony Clement, ostensibly aims to move Canada’s copyright to the twenty-first century by clearing up what have, up until now, remained grey legal areas. But it’s also a result of increasing pressure from both the U.S. government and U.S. media industries—both of which have falsely accused Canada of being a haven for digital pirates—to emulate an American approach, to the detriment of the Canadian public.
In many ways, the government is to be commended for some parts of the bill, which seem to have been tailored in response to the large outcry that accompanied Bill C-61, the government’s previous attempt at this. For example, Bill C-32 includes clear provisions for things like ripping a CD and putting it on your iPod, recording shows with a DVR, reusing copyrighted materials for the purpose of satire or parody, and making backup copies of digital materials (if you can believe it, the strict legality of those things are currently unclear). Similarly, the fines for violating copyright differentiate between that which is done for personal reasons and that which is done for commercial gain. At first glance, this almost looks like a consumer-friendly bill.
Unfortunately, many of the positive aspects of the bill are undercut by the fact that it would make breaking “digital locks”—software attached to electronic media that restricts where, how, and how many times it can be used—illegal. Most people first came across this type of lock, also known as DRM, with iTunes, which initially sold songs that could only be used on iPods. Though Apple has since unlocked all the music in their store, to this day, DVDs, CDs, eBooks, and digital movies are still frequently covered by this type of software “protection” that controls and restricts their usage.
So, let’s say you bought a shiny new iPad and wanted to use it watch your DVD copy of Up! or, for some inexplicable reason, Chloe. Because copying the disc to your computer requires software to break the DVD’s encryption, that act would be illegal and also make you liable to a fine. In fact, under this bill, the software would be also be against the law. Similarly, if you wanted to rip a track from a copy-protected CD to use on a home video you could show family, bypassing the protection could soon be a big legal no-no.
Worse, this primacy of digital locks still applies even if you’re breaking them to use content for educational or “cultural” purposes like satire. So, while many positive behaviours are protected on a superficial level, if a teacher were to use copyrighted work for a lesson, they would be legally be required to destroy those lessons within thirty days, while digital inter-library loans would have to “self-destruct” after five days. Whatever public and consumer rights were built into the bill are effectively erased by measures designed to placate content holders like the Canadian Recording Industry Association or companies like Rogers.
Any bill that slows or constrains Canadians’ access to the digital revolution will not only harm innovation, but culture, too. For years now, Canada has lagged in online media, whether digital music stores, video streaming, or nurturing the growth of e-libraries. While there are those who would dismiss this because of the dubious cultural import of being able to watch Two and Half Men online, it also means that Canadians have been less a part of the ebb and flow of contemporary culture than other wealthy, privileged nations, often watching our neighbours to the south quickly exchange clips from The Daily Show, or our European friends engage in mash-up culture without obstacle.
Additionally, after lagging for years, Toronto is finally starting to become a centre of digital innovation—and this bill’s insistence on protecting rights holders rather than consumers and users may harm our burgeoning tech scene by erecting overly draconian barriers to electronic fodder instead of more balanced solutions. While it’s true that copyright does need to be enforced, this bill seems to unfairly diminish the rights of consumers to use—and misuse—media they bought and paid for by prioritizing those people who distribute media over those who consume it.
As usual, it’s University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist who is leading the charge for a more even-handed approach to the bill, which he calls flawed but fixable. To that end, Geist has resurrected the Facebook group that was part of the successful resistance to Bill C-61, and currently has almost 85,000 members.
Both Toronto and Canada are poised to take on a greater role in the digital world. But in order to foster that kind of innovation, the public must be allowed fair and open access to the culture and tools that often inspire amateur videographers to become filmmakers, remix artists to turn pro DJs, or basement tinkerers to become software engineers. By criminalizing behaviour that encourages interplay, inspiration, and connection online and off, this bill threatens not only consumer rights, but Canada’s digital ethos. And with the world increasingly moving to the screen, any damage to Canada’s electronic lifeblood will be an injury to Canada as a whole.