Canada’s new copyright legislation is proving to be more controversial than the government may have anticipated.
A bill to amend the Copyright Act was expected to be introduced Thursday by Industry Minister Jim Prentice. That did not happen.
Public policy activists are claiming it was delayed by a groundswell of opposition, pointing to the extensive coverage of this issue in the press, calls and emails to the minister and massive growth of the Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook group, which surpassed 20,000 members.
The controversy centers on claims that the proposed legislation will fall in line with the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed by Congress ten years ago.
That American law provides tough penalties for those found copying digital materials. Common technology-enabled practices, such as TV time shifting, sharing music and video files, and copying CDs to portable MP3 players, or even backing up some computer files could be illegal under DCMA.
Software developers, Internet service providers and scientific researchers have also been impacted by DCMA which has stifled competition but failed to put a dent on piracy, according to Phillipa Lawson, director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC).
An open house at the Minister’s riding office in Calgary a week ago turned into a sizeable rally on the topic, putting the Minister on the defensive.
Despite the vociferous opposition no one outside the cabinet has seen the draft bill.
Critics as well as proponents will now have to wait to see its contents when Parliament resumes in late January.
A spokesperson for the Minister said the bill would only be introduced once Prentice and Heritage Minister Josée Verner were satisfied that it was ready for Parliament’s consideration.
Public advocacy activists, such as Michael Geist Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa say the government bowed to pressure from the U.S. and copyright lobby groups.
“We know that they held discussions with the Americans, and we know that they did not consult with the Canadian public,” said Geist.
Yet he sees a “tremendous opportunity” for Canada to come up with model legislation that is fair to copyright holders as well as consumers and the public interest.
“This is of enormous interest to Canadians, who are now more savvy about copyright” Geist emphasized. “They see how this could impact their freedom of expression, and they want to be consulted.”
This view is echoed by CIPPIC’s Lawson.
She hopes that delay in introducing the legislation signals that the Minister is willing to listen to Canadians’ concerns about copyright legislation. CIPPIC has called for a broad public consultation process.
“Maybe this is a government that listens to the public. This will be a really important test of that.”
Lawson acknowledged that she had not seen the bill, yet she believes it was not a good sign that the government was prepared to move ahead despite indications that this legislation was imbalanced in favour of corporate interests.
“In order to achieve the ultimate goal of copyright legislation,” she argued. “You have to find that delicate balance between the protection of economic rights and openness and accessibility.
“What’s thrown everything out of whack is the digital environment. We’re seeing a transformation of the marketplace that renders past business models obsolete. But the people who have a vested interest in those business models don’t want to let them go.”
Geist and other critics believe that the protective measures in the U.S. DMCA are excessive, and that it is possible to satisfy both sides in the debate.
Referring to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) Internet Treaties that Canada signed in 1997; he notes there are fair dealing provisions there that were largely ignored in the U.S. legislation.
According to Lawson, there is ample evidence now that the US approach is not working.
“If laws don’t reflect social consensus of what is fair and just, they will not be respected. And that’s what we’re seeing.”
But she is also concerned that DMCA is being used for unintended purposes, such as stifling competition, while having a negligible impact on piracy.