Published Jun 27, 2010No doubt Canada's Copyright Act desperately needs updating. The last amendments were written eons before digital technology busted open the creative industries' ability to control the supply and consumer cost of content. We have no coherent legal position on stuff that goes on every day like music file sharing on the web, or whether an ISP can shut you down for file-sharing, or even whether it's cool to backup a DVD you bought at Blockbuster onto a hard drive.
In the past decade or so, our government has been under heavy lobby to adopt American-style digital copyright laws like the DMCA, laws that, rather than encourage innovation in digital business models, help large copyright aggregators (like major record companies) make money by suing their customers. Consumers (that's us, people) have largely ignored the wailings of Hollywood et al. and have readily adopted any technology that allows us to enjoy copyrighted content across numerous devices and platforms. Not to mention share stuff we like with our friends.
So last summer the Harper government invited a round of public consultation. Public town hall meetings were held across the country, and regular folks were invited to have their say by submitting comments online. The hope for the consultation process was that hearing not just copyright lobbyists but creators and consumers would prompt government to draft a proposal that balanced the needs of all three. But on delivery of the proposed Bill C-32 late last month, it seems all that consultiness was largely smoke. Copyright aggregators might be happy, but for artists and consumers, while the new bill does take steps forward by, for example, differentiating between consumers from pirate businesses when setting fines for illegal copying or by expanding the list of "fair dealing" exemptions, it takes a few more backwards.
Musicians and rights holders looking for an extension of the blank copying levy (which compensates for revenue that might be lost when consumers make private copies) were disappointed. Given how much music is flying around between the internet, hard drives and mobile devices, there could have been a significant revenue stream here. Really, if you're going to compensate for people copying music from a digital library to a CD, why not extend that to copying to a cell phone? More backwards is the focus on enforcing digital locks. A digital lock is a piece of code designed to prevent someone from moving content around. Remember digital rights management (DRM) encryption on music? That was code that prevented you from copying a song you bought from, say, the MSN Music Store, onto a CD you could put in your car stereo. Those were dumb times. DRM came to an end when Apple managed to make deals with the major labels allowing them to sell DRM-free MP3s at the iTunes store.
Digital locks commonly in place today include code that stops you ripping a movie on DVD to your iPod. Under the proposed new bill, if Paramount caught you doing it ― even if you paid for the DVD and the copy is just for your convenience ― they could come after you for damages up to $5000 per incident.
Lobbyists for stricter controls on copyright always say that enforcing digital locks and criminalizing lock-busters is the only way to ensure that copyright creators have an incentive to keep creating. They argue that if creators don't make their nickel a copy, they will stop creating and there will be no more music ever. It's hilarious to me that those making this argument ― the RIAA and major labels, prominently ― are companies that got rich by never paying artists. Not paying artists is the cornerstone of how the music business works. And yet, artists keep creating. So let's call BS on that.
Copyright as a means of compensating creators was invented at a time when you could control the number of copies, even control the music. Digital technology and the internet have made that all but impossible, creating a complex economy driven entirely by consumer demand. Music lovers are going to get what they want. Technology firms and net start-ups are going to help make it happen. The control over product and consumer behaviour that the music industry once asserted has been propped up over the years by copyright law. But as a legal framework, copyright law is kind of like Windows ― code heaped on code that only ever temporarily fixes what is at source a crappy piece of programming. What we need here is a whole new OS.