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How the new copyright bill will affect Canadian culture

I’ve been telling people that emerging technology drives change and that the change is now exponential, says author William Gibson

Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic / The Globe and Mail

Canada's most important science fiction author spent years writing about the future.

William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace and wrote one of the most critically acclaimed science-fiction novels of all time – Neuromancer, in 1984 – described a digitally connected virtual world long before it actually existed.

Today, Mr. Gibson is convinced the sheer speed of technology's progress has made it impossible to predict not only what comes next, but also the uses and lifespans of current technologies. Simply put, we have little idea in what direction our digital tools are taking us.

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"I've been telling people that emerging technology drives change and that the change is now exponential," he says.

"[Even]the people who create new technologies have no idea, often, what [will be]the most significant societal changes their technology causes."

Brisk and unpredictable technological change has had a profound impact on almost every aspect of society. But many of its most surprising side effects have occurred in cultural industries.

For years, Canada has attempted to protect its cultural content – books, music, television, film – from being overshadowed by those of larger nations, notably the United States. Canadian private television broadcasters such as CTV and Global are required to spend 30 per cent of their gross revenues on Canadian programming. Thirty-five per cent of the songs on Canadian commercial radio stations must be by Canadian artists.

(Listen to the entire William Gibson interview. Right-click on the link and "Save Link As/Save Target As" to download or left-click to stream)

But such rules were written long before the Internet transformed culture, its dissemination, and its reach. Look at Canada's most recent cultural success stories and you'll find the likes of Justin Bieber, an international teenage pop sensation whose low-budget YouTube videos were viewed 55-million times before he ever sat down with a record label executive.

But at a time when we use 21st-century tools to disseminate culture, we are in many ways using 20th-century laws to regulate it.

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So how do we protect and promote Canadian culture in the digital age?

Right now, the answer to that question is intertwined with the fate of Canada's copyright policies. The federal government is on the verge of passing Bill C-32, which would rewrite much of our laws on copyright, a vital if contentious pillar of cultural industries.

Although many debates have framed the copyright issue as an economic one, or a matter of consumer rights versus business concerns, the copyright bill will have a great impact on Canadian culture. If Ottawa institutes too many regulations telling Canadians what they can and can't do with their movies, songs and other digital content, consumers may feel their rights are being curtailed in favour of record companies and movie studios. If those same movie studios feel Canada is too lax on laws to prosecute people who copy or distribute movies, Canada's film industry may suffer as a result. The stakeholders are plenty and pleasing all of them seems almost impossible.

But the controversy over copyright policy overlooks the fact that real-world borders that used to make U.S. dominance Canada's biggest foreign cultural worry no longer exist for culture. The Internet has made it possible to easily push Canadian creations to the rest of the world, and for the rest of the world to do the same to Canada. If the laws that govern how this country's cultural industries are used by consumers fail to strike the right balance, Canada may find itself at a disadvantage as creators flock to friendlier jurisdictions, or consumers opt for the endless global content available on the Web.

Although there is no shortage of differing opinions, everyone seems to agree that our existing and outdated copyright regime is in need of change.

"If you told the average Canadian that recording a television show was still an active infringement in Canada, I mean, they would laugh," says Michael Geist, Canada research chair of Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa.

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Back in 1979, years before anyone had heard of Napster, the copyright debate of the day centred on that very thing – the potentially disruptive technology of videotapes.

In a U.S. courtroom that year, the Sony Betamax was under fire for what was already being called time-shifting – taping a TV program to watch at a later time. One person who took the stand in defence of time-shifting, surprisingly, was childhood icon Mister Rogers.

At the time, Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood was watched by some 3-million families a day. Should those viewers be allowed to make copies of Neighbourhood, and other shows, on their new videotape recorders, he was asked?

Mister Rogers' answer was an emphatic, yes.

"I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the Neighbourhood off-the-air ... that they then become much more active in the programming of their family's television life," he told the court.

"Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been 'You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions,' " Fred Rogers told the court.

The neighbourhood may have changed, but the debate continues.

Except today, the time-shifting debate has moved on to hard drives and DVDs instead of videotapes.

And just as producers learned to cope with the videotape, today's businesses are also learning. Sites such as YouTube have figured out ways to make money from apparent copyright violations – by running ads in the video or including a link to iTunes so viewers can buy the featured song.

"Companies are getting pretty savvy at giving us options in legal ways," says Queen's University professor and social media trend watcher Sidneyeve Matrix. "A few years ago they would just take it down."

Indeed, the content creators are sometimes on the same side as those "illegally" downloading that content. For example, while some artists are still fighting for copyright protection, many independent musicians recognize that selling easily copied music in today's remix culture increases their audience, and helps them build a brand and sell concert tickets.

But Canada's new proposed copyright bill has one controversial feature that could curtail that type of sharing: digital locks.

These technical tools, embedded into devices such as DVDs, prevent users from making copies of movies or music. Under Bill C-32, Canadians are legally allowed to make backup copies of, or transfer to their computer, music they have purchased – that is, unless the producers of the content place a digital lock on it.

"The bill gives and then it immediately takes away, by saying on the one hand, you now have the right to [copy content]o it, but on the other hand, any time there's a digital lock there, those rights are lost," says Prof. Geist, who adds that in other areas, the new bill is an improvement. "To me, this is the one obvious place where not only is there not an attempt to compromise, but it completely skews the balance in favour of a world in which things can be locked down."

However the government argues that some industries – such as video games – need such locks, even if some music creators have already recognized their irrelevance.

The issue, for now, is unresolved.

However, those who developed the new bill know they are legislating technologies that may not even exist in a few years' time. That's why the new copyright law, should it pass, would go through a mandatory review after five years.

By that point it's possible that billions of people will have smartphones; electronic book-readers may have replaced paper books, holographic video may be an accessible medium. Or maybe not.

"People [in cultural industries]will have to invent the shapes of their careers in ways that wouldn't have been possible when they started," says Mr. Gibson.

On Nov. 22, Mr. Clement intends to outline the government's strategy in a speech. He will present the copyright bill as one part of a three-part strategy that also includes anti-spam and online privacy proposals.

Those proposals are also bound to be contentious. It seems the only certainty is uncertainty: After years of attempting to catch up with technology, the Canadian government has conceded the digital world moves too fast. In an interview, both Heritage Minister James Moore and Mr. Clement suggest that further reviews of the law could be built into the system every five years – a lifetime in digital terms, but an improvement over what critics sometimes describe as the country's current "fax-machine laws."

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