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New technologies like GPS have emerged during Canada's years of inaction on copyright reform, radically changing the way we consume, share and purchase information. (Ron Harris/AP)
New technologies like GPS have emerged during Canada's years of inaction on copyright reform, radically changing the way we consume, share and purchase information. (Ron Harris/AP)

Barrie McKenna

Another election call, another failed bid for copyright reform Add to ...

There they stood, dozens of Finance officials eager to explain to reporters the intricacies of the 2011 federal budget.

The budget - all 352 pages of it - is the culmination of months of diligent work by those officials, and hundreds of others throughout the government bureaucracy.

Within minutes of the document's release last Tuesday in Ottawa, all that toil became virtually irrelevant as it became clear the minority Conservative government would fall. The budget had a shelf life of barely an hour. Imagine the frustration.

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This is what happens when governments fall in Canada. Budgets become paperweights, key decisions are put on hold and important legislation dies.

It isn't pretty. It isn't how to get things done. And we all pay for it, one way or another.

Consider the tortured history of copyright reform in Canada. For more than a decade now, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have vowed to get it done. Ottawa assured its key trade partners in 1997 that it would bring its laws into the digital age. Ottawa studied the issue to death, consulted widely and promised the software, publishing, music and entertainment industries that reform was coming.

Twice now, legislation has died on the order papers as the country faced elections - in 2006 and 2008.

Surely another three years would be ample time to finally get it done. Apparently not.

Bill C-32, the Copyright Modernization Act, is all but dead again as Canadians head to the polls for the fourth time in seven years. Months of hearings, hundreds of submissions and weighty committee reports - all of it wasted effort, just like the budget.

"It's beyond frustrating," said a dejected Graham Henderson, president of the Canadian Recording Industry Association and the voice of the major record companies.

Canadians love to poke fun at the failings of other democracies. We scratch our heads when American politicians can't get off the destructive treadmill of spending excess and tax cuts. We chuckle at those whacky brawls that break out occasionally in the legislatures of Taiwan and South Korea. And we revel in the sex scandals of the Italians and the French.

Maybe it's time to take a critical look at ourselves.

It shouldn't take 14 years to do copyright reform. Even three years seems unreasonably long.

It isn't just that the rest of the world is watching. Yes, the United States has regularly branded us intellectual property pirates because of our failure to provide better legal protection for software, movies and the like.

Canadians should want to get it done because it's the right thing to do. Life-changing new technologies have emerged during these years of inaction - MP3 players, smart phones, wireless tablet PCs and mobile GPS devices to name a few. These devices have revolutionized the way we consume, share and purchase media. The guts of Canada's laws date to a time when the eight-track player was a hot item.

If Canada wants to be a leader in global innovation, the country should have laws to match its ambition. Instead, we have a Wild West of illegal file sharing and inadequate tools to go after companies that are profiting from the legal vacuum. Meanwhile, we're scaring away lucrative businesses that would sell us digital media conveniently, and legitimately.

Among other things, the legislation would have:

• Allowed content providers to protect their IP with "digital locks."

• Brought Canada in line with the World Intellectual Property Organization Internet treaties, already ratified by all other Group of Seven developed countries.

• Made it easier for copyright owners to pursue pirates, including access to data from Internet service providers and search engines.

• Permitted limited, free educational copying.

• Legalized the recording of TV shows and burning CDs for personal use.

Critics of Bill C-32 are quietly cheering the bill's latest demise. Artists didn't get the so-called iPod tax they wanted to compensate them for unauthorized copying. Many viewed the "digital locks" provision as problematic because it wasn't clear how the locks would distinguish legal copying from illegal use. A vocal online constituency wanted everything digital for free, with no legal constraints.

With the exception of the everything-for-free crowd, most critics could have been appeased. With goodwill from the various political parties - all of which backed reform - reasonable compromises were there to be made. MPs decided instead to drag their feet, stretching the bill-making committee process into a needless marathon.

The result, Mr. Henderson said, is "debilitating" uncertainty and infighting, along with a steady erosion of legal sales as a generation of consumers gets their music and movies for free.

Doing nothing means falling further behind in a fast-moving world.

Follow on Twitter: @barriemckenna

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