Canada’s copyright conundrum — how to balance rights of creators and consumers

Canada’s copyright stakeholders agree that our legislation is badly out of date and needs to be updated to reflect the modern, digital realities while striking a fair balance between the rights of creators and the rights of consumers – exactly how that will be done is up in the air.

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There was a flurry of editorials and letters published in newspapers across the nation, last week, igniting much discussion in the blogosphere and on Twitter. The common thread here is the ongoing government-public consultations on copyright hosted by Conservative MPs James Moore and Tony Clement.

The consultations involve roundtable discussions, town hall meetings, and an Internet discussion forum. Opinions will be collected until Sept. 13.

Weighing in through the newspapers were lobbyists, librarians, and artists group leaders.

All are sure to let their views be known to the government and their arguments offer a kind of preview of the options the government will be considering for its new copyright legislation in the Fall.

One view shared by all commentators is that Canada’s copyright legislation is in serious need of an update.

The legislation currently in effect is older than Napster, points out Ferne Downey, national president of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA). Downey contributed an editorial to The Toronto Star.

Canada’s laws aren’t adequately deal with new challenges of the digital age, agrees Erna Paris, chair of the Writer’s Union of Canada in a letter to The Globe and Mail. But some are more critical of the country’s record on copyright.

“Canada is viewed as a pirate heaven, both by the pirate sites that have moved to Canada because of lax laws and by Canada’s trading partners, who have singled us out for our weak laws,” write Barry Sookman and Stephen Stohn in their joint editorial for the National Post.

Sookman is a registered lobbyist for the Canadian Recording Industry Association and a partner in the technology law group at McCarthy Tetrault. Stohn is the president of Epitome Pictures Inc.

The statement echoes language used in a report issued last year by the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) that calls Canada a “piracy haven.” That document was plagiarized in a report on copyright issued by the Conference Board of Canada, which later retracted its reports.

Portrayals of Canada as paradise for pirates are based on polls conducted by music industry groups making them suspect in the eyes of some public advocacy groups and activitsts.

Sookman and Stohn’s editorial goes on to recommend that any tool created to break digital locks should be made illegal. They also call for a “graduated response process” from Internet service providers (ISPs) that would invoice take-down notices for Web sites and users seen to be in violation of copyright. There should also be specific exceptions built into the legislation, as opposed to a general fair use exception.

Downey, writing in the Star, doesn’t make any direct mention of digital locks. But consumers should be able to “shift” media from a CD to an iPod, she says – but not for free.

“We want to make sure performers have a share in the economic value of our work, and have some say in how and when Canadians can enjoy it,” she writes.

Current levies that go towards the purchase of CD-Recordable discs and blank cassette tapes could be extended to ensure artists continue to receive income, no matter what type of digital media is involved.

Olivier Charbonneau, a librarian at Concordia University, takes a different approach to digital locks in a French language editorial in Le Devoir. The breaking of such digital locks should only be illegal if done for the purposes of copyright infringement, he argues.

Music and iPod use isn’t the only copyright issue at stake of course. Erna Paris, chair for the Writer’s Union of Canada writes a letter to the Globe and Mail to put forth the idea of collective licencing to cover the use of author’s work by academics.

“Academics are salaried, they want their works distributed as widely as possible and free access to other people’s writings for research purposes,” Paris writes. “Professional writers, on the other hand, are unsalaried; they also want their work broadly disseminated and accessible to all, but can’t afford to give away their work.”

Canadians looking to contribute to the consultation can take part in the discussion forum online. Michael Geist’s Web site also has background information about the issues and provides other ideas on getting involved.

The irony is that all this effort, though, may amount to nothing.

Minority government sessions were cut short in both 2005 and 2008, killing Bill C-60 and Bill C-61 respectively.

As there’s still a minority government in Ottawa, the chance of a snap election can’t be ruled out.

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