On Canada’s DMCA

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to a CD comprised entirely of bootleg Christmas remixes. Even under current copyright, this stuff shouldn’t exist. And while most of it’s kind of awful (but awful in a good way, I think), there are tiny bits of beautiful brilliance that should exist.

Today, Canadian Industry minister Jim Prentice was supposed to put forward a new Canadian copyright reform bill. The phrase “copyright reform bill” sends a chill down my spine. While Canadian copyright reform could use some reform, I’m pretty sure that the idea of “reform” in the minds of the authors of the bill will be quite a bit different than what I think would actually be useful or necessary.

As I was saying, there was supposed to be a new copyright reform bill today. But there isn’t. It’s been “delayed.”

Copyright reform used to be thought of as something abstract and safe that the government could mess with. It was just a bit of legalese that concerned a few industries and politicians heading more obscure ministries could make promises to industry friends and supporters that they could easily keep and nobody would notice. Nobody understood it anyway. It was a useful source of campaign funding.

That’s changing. People have read Lawerence Lessig’s Free Culture (not that I have, although I keep meaning to). People are starting to realize that this stuff is actually kind of important. It’s foundational to all the works of our culture. Maybe locking up control of those works with a few very large (and in the case of Canada’s culture, foreign) companies may not be a good thing.

The Canadian government has signed international treaties which (somewhat undemocratically) require us to introduce certain copyright reforms. Without going into details or explanation, we need to provide some sort of legal backing to digital rights management (“DRM”), much like the American Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”). The Liberal government tried to introduce such legislation twice, but for one reason or another, it was stalled and died on the floor both times (neither were “defeated” in the sense that they were voted down; they just never made it through the House). The Conservative government made it known in its throne speech that it was going to try again. And it was announced this week that the bill would be tabled today.

Nobody knows exactly what the bill would contain, although given people’s suspicions about the leanings of our Conservative party and the tone of the throne speech, it was pretty easy to believe rumours put forward by Michael Geist and Cory Doctorow that the bill would not only import all the worst aspects of the DMCA, but also continue to allow record companies to double-dip consumers with copyright levies because DRM doesn’t work (keeping in mind that it would no longer be legal to use any of the rights the levies would supposedly buy you).

I wasn’t going to write about any of this until I actually saw the bill. I mean, I’m pretty sure for myself that Cory’s right, though he’s perhaps even more raving and hyperbolic than ever on this one. I’m just not quite willing to stake my reputation on it (for whatever that’s worth). I was actually going to write my MP on this, but not until I knew what I was talking about.

I was a bit taken aback that the bill has now been “delayed,” though. Major media outlets are portraying it as an embarrassed government backing down from a controversial bill, a version of events I have no problem with. I don’t know why the bill was delayed, but I’m kinda hoping that it was in fact because Mr Prentice realized that this wasn’t quite the easy, abstract thing he could do to make his American buddies happy. It actually mattered to people.

Before I go, I’d just like to point out that CBC’s Search Engine has been absolutely fantastic about reporting this, taking the points that Dr Geist have raised, couching them in terms in accord with CBC’s editorial policies and then making them understandable (I hope) to a mass audience. If you’re at all interested in any of this stuff, I encourage you to subscribe to their podcast (or, if you’re old-fashioned and can maintain a schedule, maybe listen in Tuesdays or Thursdays).