Can Canada Find a Middle Ground on Copyright?

The Canadian government, in an attempt to bring the country’s copyright legislation into the 21st century, has tabled its own version of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The government says the proposed bill, called the Copyright Modernization Act, strikes a balance between the rights of content creators — that is, the music industry, movie studios, etc. — and the rights of individuals who want to use their content in a variety of ways: for example, copying downloaded music to a portable device, or using content for educational purposes. But is such a balance even possible? And if it is, does the proposed legislation accomplish it? In its current version at least, the answer appears to be no.

Critics of the bill, including law professor and copyright expert Michael Geist, say the current version of the legislation — which has been in the works for over a year – gives content creators a trump card that renders the new freedoms for users effectively meaningless. The bill states that if content is locked in some way, through digital rights management (DRM) software protection or some other electronic method built into the product or device it comes on, it’s illegal to break that lock or find a way of extracting the content even for purposes approved under the act.

In other words, even though the bill expands the “fair dealing” protections under Canadian law (fair dealing is Canada’s version of fair use) — by saying that digital content can be used for educational purposes, for parody or satire, to “time-shift” or otherwise copy content, and even allowing users to remix user-generated content for personal purposes — none of these protections are allowed if they involve getting around the digital locks on a piece of content. If a teacher were to extract music files from a copy-protected CD for use in class, for example, he or she would still be liable for that copyright infringement.

Even the Canadian government’s own Industry Minister, Tony Clement, admitted that he regularly rips CDs of music and copies those files to his iPod — behavior that’s illegal under Canada’s current copyright law and wouldn’t be protected under the new legislation if the CD were encrypted. A representative of the Canadian Pirate Party told the website TorrentFreak that the bill “represents a gross disregard of consumers’ free will to control what they rightfully own, through banning the bypass of ‘DRM’ controls placed by big industry.”

Since the bill hasn’t become law yet, there is still the chance that the government can be persuaded to alter the legislation, although it’s likely to face significant pressure from content companies not to do so. The previous version of the bill — which didn’t contain as many exceptions for personal use and other purposes, and was seen by many as a carbon copy of the U.S. DMCA — was withdrawn by the government in 2007 after a public lobbying campaign against it, orchestrated in part by Prof. Geist. After the bill was removed, the government held a series of public meetings across the country to survey opinion on copyright law.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Why Viacom’s Fight With YouTube Threatens Innovation

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Horia Varlan

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