The last time Ottawa updated its copyright laws, only about a third of Canadians had a home computer. Even fewer used the Internet. The iPod didn’t exist.
And so, for the past five years, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have tried to reconcile Canada’s yellowing copyright law with a digital world.
Twice now, legislation died on the order papers as the country faced elections – in 2005 and 2008.
Eager to avoid a third failure, Industry Minister Tony Clement spent a year consulting Canadians about what should be contained in a copyright overhaul. The result was Bill C-32, the Copyright Modernization Act, introduced in June.
And for a while, it looked as if Mr. Clement might finally be getting somewhere. The bill, which would bring Canada into compliance with its international pledges to protect intellectual property (IP), moved swiftly through the first two votes in the House of Commons and on to a special committee for further study, and hearings.
The hearings, which could draw hundreds of witnesses, are moving at the blistering Ottawa pace of two or three guests a day. And the committee is holding hearings only twice a week, when Parliament is in session.
Count the days. If the country is headed for a spring election, Bill C-32 will almost certainly die. And the witnesses are wasting their breath.
“We go back to square one, again,” said a frustrated Graham Henderson, president of the Canadian Recording Industry Association and the voice of the major record companies.
Instead of trying to find compromise on contentious issues, the bill’s opponents appear to be just “ragging the puck” and biding their time for another election, Mr. Henderson complained.
Canada faces intense pressure from its major trading partners – mainly the United States and Europe – to live up to its pledge to get in line with international copyright standards. Another delay could put a proposed Canada-Europe free-trade deal at risk and needlessly sour trade relations with the United States.
Forget pleasing our trading partners. There’s another, more powerful reason to back the bill: consumer choice.
The legislation risks dying because average Canadians don’t seem to care enough – they don’t see their interests reflected in C-32. But most Canadians don’t have a clue the panoply of entertainment options they’re missing. Hundreds of U.S. and British downloading and streaming sites, offering endless choice and flexibility, aren’t available here. There’s Hulu for TV and video, plus hundreds of innovative digital music sites, including Pandora, Amazon, Spotify, Microsoft Zune, Rhapsody, Mog and Thumbplay. Britain alone has nearly 70 legal music sites.
None of these businesses are in Canada because content owners are reluctant to license their intellectual property in an outdated and confusing legal environment.
“It’s very difficult for us to convince businesses to come and invest in what amounts to the Wild West,” Mr. Henderson said.
Protect intellectual property and many of these services – or their Canadian equivalents – will come. And when they do, consumers can choose to ditch high-cost and clunky cable providers, or never listen to a radio DJ again.
Instead, the Canadian market is dominated by pirate BitTorrent file-sharing sites such as Isohunt that operate freely here. And the legal market continues to shrink (from $1.4-billion a decade ago to half that today in music alone). Even larger amounts of money are lost due to pirated movies and TV shows.
Canadians shouldn’t be afraid of what’s in this legislation. Among other things, it would:
Allow content providers to protect their IP with “digital locks.”
Bring Canada in line with the World Intellectual Property Organization Internet treaties, already ratified by all other Group of Seven developed countries
Make it easier for copyright owners to pursue pirates, including access to data from Internet service providers and search engines.
Allow limited, free educational copying.
Legalize the recording of TV shows and burning CDs for personal use.
The major sticking point right now is a demand from many Canadian music stars and actors that Ottawa add an MP3 tax to the bill – a fee on recording devices that would go to compensate artists for private copying. Right now, there’s a levy on blank CDs and cassettes, but dwindling sales of those items mean that artists pocket almost nothing.
There’s also disagreement on just how expansive the exemption for educational copying should be.
All sides want changes and fixes.
Surely, we don’t need another year of study, and the risk of another legislative dead-end, to do the right thing.