Liberal fundraiser stirs up copyright controversy

A Liberal MP and advocate for copyright reform has come under fire for a proposed fundraiser that will be sponsored by corporate copyright interests and held four days before the upcoming federal election.

Sarmite “Sam” Bulte is the Member of Parliament for the Parkdale-High Park riding in Toronto and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage. She is hosting a $250-a-plate event at the Drake Hotel on Jan. 19 which will be sponsored by representatives from the Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association, the Entertainment Software Alliance, the Canadian Recording Industry Association and the Canadian Publishers Council.

Bulte has long advocated a tougher stance on copyright and authored a 2004 report calling for Canada to ratify the WIPO Copyright Treaty, more liability for copyright infringements by Canadian ISPs, a new approach to licensing educational materials, and other recommendations.

The issue isn’t Bulte’s take on copyright, argued Internet lawyer and University of Ottawa research chair Michael Geist, but that she would accept fundraising contributions from corporate copyright organizations, some of which have ties to U.S. interests.

“I’ve got real concerns with the perception that so many stakeholders will be left with,” said Geist. “I think this is one of those issues where someone who is directly involved in the policy process, and plays such a prominent role in the policy process, as Ms. Bulte has, has to be seen as completely neutral on these issues.”

Geist has made similar statements on his Weblog, which recently drew the attention of popular blog site

NDP candidate for the Parkdale riding Peggy Nash said she became aware of Bulte’s fundraiser at a candidates’ meeting last week. “What I said at the time was that I thought it was of questionable judgement to hold this fundraiser right before the election. One of the main issues in this election is the question of ethics. . . . To me it’s like the banks holding a fundraiser for the Minister of Finance.”

David Fewer, legal counsel for the Ottawa-based Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (of which Geist is also a member), said that the fundraiser is dangerously close to American-style politicking.

“We obviously deplore the influence of corporate money and foreign money on Canadian copyright,” said Fewer. “Big copyright has enough advantages with their money and their lobbying and their access to politicians without complicating matters and creating this potential for conflict by actually funding campaigns.”

Bulte said that she resents the implication of undue influence, adding that “no one can buy me for $250 or $250,000. I have been an outspoken advocate of artists and creators well before I was ever elected, because nobody speaks out for them.”

Bulte said that she supports organizations like the Writers’ Trust of Canada. “I continue to give money to arts organizations. I don’t apologize for that. Do I think that downloading material off the Internet or songs is stealing? Yes, I do, and I will continue to be that voice. I have nothing to apologize for.”

Don Oravec, interim executive director and director of fund development for the Writers Trust, confirmed that Bulte has supported the organization’s events in the past. He said that no one from the Trust will be attending Bulte’s dinner since the not-for-profit avoids political fundraisers.

Deborah Windsor, executive director of the Writers’ Union of Canada, which represents trade book authors, said that she is in regular contact with Bulte.

“Sam is pretty knowledgeable on copyright. Of most of the politicians that we’ve spoken to, she understands the value of copyright. I’m quite supportive of what she’s saying,” she said. Windsor has no comment on Bulte’s fundraiser and said she had no immediate plans to attend.

The fundraiser, and her copyright position in general, has been unfairly skewed as being pro-American, said Bulte.

She said that Bill C-60, the current Canadian legislation that governs copyright issues could stand some revision, but isn’t advocating a U.S. approach to copyright like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

“It’s about ensuring that Canada fosters an environment where we welcome the creation of Canadian content so that we aren’t taken over by a culture model like the U.S. Why should our writers and creators have to move to the States to get protection?” she said.

Bulte said that she is prepared to debate Geist on copyright issues in a public forum. When asked, Geist said, “I would love that. I would welcome the opportunity.”

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