The air in Ottawa was thick with 1980s nostalgia this week as singer Bryan Adams appeared before a Parliamentary committee reviewing Canada’s copyright law. Star-struck MPs on the committee recalled Adams’s long career, launched in the eighties with such hits as Summer of ’69 and Run to You, while the star himself made a pitch for changing the law so musicians can retrieve rights they signed over back in their youth.
Recording companies exploiting struggling young musicians? In the era of YouTube and Spotify, it’s a charmingly retro image.
Seeking to protect artists from the contractual naivete of his youth, Adams wants a one-word change that would let rights revert back to the artist 25 years after assignment to someone else – rather than 25 years after the artist’s death, which is the current law. The U.S. has a similar provision, and it may be a good idea. Still, it seems of laughably secondary concern when musicians are struggling to get fair compensation from both streaming services and YouTube, while still suffering mightily from piracy. As Adams himself acknowledged, his request doesn’t address larger issues in the industry.
For a much bigger picture, look to Europe, where last week the European Parliament passed a sweeping copyright directive – effectively a draft of legislation that will be voted on again later. The directive seeks to protect content creators from exploitation on several fronts. Its most notable initiatives include “snippet licensing,” which would force Internet aggregators such as Google to pay something to publishers for the content they link to. And another clause, aimed at stopping widespread copyright infringement, clarifies that services such as YouTube are responsible for content uploaded by users. Parliamentarians were subject to heavy pressure from Internet activists and the tech lobby, who dubbed the first measure a “link tax” and said the second threatens free speech, but they still voted in favour, 438 to 226. Creators in Canada were chuffed; at a time when various Facebook scandals seem to have shaken politicians from their embrace of Internet libertarianism, sensible regulation and some licensing solutions finally look possible.
As the review of copyright law continues, the creative industries here are filled with suggestions, some of which are similar to the European measures and some of which look to fix specific domestic issues. The music recording industry has talked about clarifying the law so that YouTube can’t slip through exemptions that were originally designed to protect phone companies and then extended to the Internet. Supporters of the newspaper industry have recommended versions of snippet licensing. On the other hand, the book publishing industry is currently focused on a single Canadian issue: closing the education exemption in the 2012 Copyright Act that has encouraged both schools and universities to sidestep licensing systems that pay writers and publishers for copying their content – and that is strangling the supply of new Canadian material in the education sector.
The Liberals always talk about supporting creators, but will they walk the walk when it comes to the copyright review? Since they have shown no political inclination to tackle Netflix on an issue as simple as sales tax, it seems unlikely they have the fortitude to stare down YouTube or Google. The committee isn’t expected to report until 2019 – probably waiting until the federal election is safely out of the way. In their attempt to modernize the Copyright Act in 2012, the Conservatives only got the job half done, neglecting the digital reality that the people who actually produce content aren’t being fairly compensated.
Maybe, finally, in 2020, MPs will think about passing copyright legislation that recognizes Canadian creators are not living in the 1980s.