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This e-mail responds to several questions posed on a government website on copyright.
"How do Canada's copyright laws affect you? How should existing laws be modernized?"
I am currently teaching an undergraduate course in computer science at the University of Saskatchewan. During my course, I wanted to make select readings available to my students. Using the CANCOPY agreements, I was able to put copies of the readings in the library so that students could refer to them. It would have been much easier (for everyone involved), if I could have scanned the readings and made them available to students as PDFs over the Internet. This is totally within the spirit of CANCOPY, but CANCOPY has a specific clause prohibiting electronic distribution.
I realise that this does not strictly fall into the category of copyright reform, but it does touch on one of the central issues: format shifting (in this case from paper to digital). The issue has come to the forefront recently with video and audio. One of the major abuses of TPM (technology protection measures) and DRM (digital rights management) is to prevent people from format shifting. Any legislation should expressly allow the breaking of digital locks the purpose of formating shifting (or other "fair uses" such as scholarship). Otherwise, much time, money, and effort will be wasted for no real benefit other than a few vested interests (e.g. the 5 major record labels who would love to sell me that Led Zeppelin album, again).
Closely related to format shifting is time shifting: using a PVR (personal video recorder) or VCR to tape television shows from cable to watch at a later date. With analog TV this was legal and fairly straightforward for average users. With the advent of digital television, it is possible to encrypt the television signal so that it cannot be copied to watch at a later time (most digital TVs use an encrypted video signal — HDMI — for high definition content).
"Based on Canadian values and interests, how should copyright changes be made in order to withstand the test of time?"
One of the real values of copyright is that its spurs production of creative works that enrich all of society. But it comes at a cost. Most producers readily acknowledge that ideas do not exist in a vacuum, they evolve over time and critically depend on other peoples creative work. If copyright is too stringent, it is difficult if not impossible to make use of existing ideas. A simple example occurred during the filming of a documentary in the USA within the last decade: some interview footage had a TV playing in the background; the copyright for the TV show could not be cleared; although the TV show was incidental, obscuring the audio would make interview hard to understand; so the interview had to be cut. Clearing copyright is a non-trivial task that large organisations struggle with (it's practically impossible for individuals — even for non-commercial use).
I'll readily acknowledge that if copyright is too weak (especially in the digital age), then there is little incentive to produce new creative works. Striking this balance is difficult (especially because the process is politicised), but I think that the average Canadian would agree (with some thought) that the balance is tilted too far in favour of strong copyright: all one has to do is consider the vast amount of books, music, video games, etc. that are no longer commercially viable but still protected by copyright. Distribution has traditionally been very expensive, which set a very high bar for commercial viability. Current copyright legislation does not acknowledge that commercially unviable material still has significant value and new low-cost methods of digital distribution can allow those works to live on, if they are offered at little or no cost.
"What sorts of copyright changes do you believe would best foster innovation and creativity in Canada?"
"What sorts of copyright changes do you believe would best foster competition and investment in Canada?"
Just as small business drive the economy, small creators produce the majority of creative works (not Hollywood or big video-game companies like EA — although these are the most visible). With the digital revolution (music hardly ever hits a tape recorder anymore and many visual artists never use canvas or film) this is especially true. Now more than ever, creating something is not like building a skyscaper or a subdivision, it's more like building a house: to build a great house, you still need to be a professional, but you do not need a massive organisation behind you. To stretch the metaphor, much of the copyright discussion has been dominated by massive developers pushing an aggressive one-size-fits-all approach to the detriment of small contractors and carpenters. To best foster competition and investment in Canada, we need nuanced copyright legislation that enables the creativity of small players and protects consumers.
"What kinds of changes would best position Canada as a leader in the global, digital economy?"
Canada is a leader. Despite the outcry of certain special interest groups, a non-negligible reason for this is that we haven't adopted the worst of the legislation from of our neighbours to the south: software patents and the DCMA. To continue our growth, we need a balanced, nuanced approach: protection and extension of fair use (in particular, format shifting, time shifting, and digital distribution), limitations on digital locks that artificially restrict fair use, and limits on copyright (allowing minor samples of music and film) to encourage individuals and small groups the produce their own works.
Jonathan Backer, PhD