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The press secretary for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains says the government will closely review the industry committee's recommendations on AI.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Artificial intelligence (AI) companies say the government should clarify the legality of using copyrighted materials to train machines.

The call comes as the House of Commons industry committee tabled its review of the Copyright Act to Parliament in June, which included a recommendation to create an exception to allow material to be used for AI development.

Christian Troncoso, policy director at BSA, The Software Alliance, an industry group, said certainty in the act means that companies will have greater confidence investing in the Canadian AI market.

The uncertainty, Mr. Troncoso said, lies in the process of informational analysis, referring to the process of a computer analyzing data and patterns.

Mr. Troncoso said a computer can be trained to detect objects in a photo by feeding a machine millions of copies of photographs until it can detect patterns and make predictions about objects in the new photo.

The technology has been used in apps designed to help visually impaired individuals identify scenes around them, Mr. Troncoso said. For example, one could take a photo of a street and the app could identify the location of a bus stop.

He said the Copyright Act is “very unclear” on whether copies used for informational analysis constitute copyright infringement.

And while informational analysis encompasses a range of technologies, Mr. Troncoso said many of them boil down to an ability to identify patterns in large sets of data – taken from copies – and then using those patterns to make predictions about new data. He said some provisions for incidental copying cover some forms of informational analysis, but there is not much certainty.

Nevin French, vice-president of policy at the Information Technology Association of Canada, which advocates for a sustainable digital economy, said he was pleased to see the committee’s recommendations to amend the act to “facilitate the use of a work or other subject matter for the purpose of informational analysis.”

He said businesses looking to invest in Canada would consider the copyright regime, the tax system and the availability of tech talent.

“Certainly, copyright and AI would be a very important element of that,” Mr. French said.

Paul Gagnon, legal counsel at Element AI which develops and delivers AI products, said he looks for clear answers on policy to provide more certainty for his investors.

Bigger, multinational companies aren’t as affected by uncertain policies because they have “deep pockets,” litigators and insurance policies, but he said it can be detrimental for small companies or universities.

“If you’re a startup looking for funding, the fact that you could have one copyright suit pending could be fatal to subsequent funding,” Mr. Gagnon said.

Danielle Keenan, press secretary for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, said the government will closely review the committee’s recommendations.

“Our government believes that copyright is a vital part of Canada’s creative, social and economic well-being,” Ms. Keenan said in an e-mailed statement.

Mr. Gagnon and Mr. Troncoso said discussions around informational analysis and exceptions needed for AI have become a global priority. They pointed to the European Union, Japan and Singapore as jurisdictions that are clarifying copyright regimes while competing with Canada for investment and tech talent.

Mr. French said some countries will get it right, and others will get it wrong.

“I think we’ll see countries that get it wrong – companies will be leaving that area,” he said.

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