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Canadians May Adopt U.S.-Style Ban On Breaking ‘Digital Locks’

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In the U.S., copyright law generally makes it illegal for consumers to do things like copy a DVD, even if it’s for personal use. But in Canada, there’s no such restriction–meaning it’s also perfectly legal to do things like “mod” a videogame system or jailbreak an iPhone.

But that may be about to change. If passed, C-32, as the legislation is called, would be the biggest change to Canadian copyright law in modern times. The most controversial component is the criminalization of breaking “digital locks,” also referred to as digital rights management (DRM). Getting around such locks has been illegal in the U.S. since the passage of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, with certain narrow exceptions (like jailbreaking your iPhone.) The U.S. entertainment industry has repeatedly called for Canada to adopt a similar provision in its law, but it’s proved controversial–especially as questions have been raised about whether it’s serving U.S. consumers well.

The U.S. ban on circumventing digital locks has stopped products like RealNetworks’ RealDVD from getting onto the market. It’s also been used by copyright owners to go after hobbyists who hack their systems; a notable recent example is Sony (NYSE: SNE) Corp.’s legal attack against 21-year-old hacker George Hotz. Hotz, who is known as “geohot,” hacked a Sony PlayStation 3–which he legally owned–and published the hacking instructions online. Hotz was hit this week with a restraining order.

Trade groups representing the Canadian recording and movie industries have long been seeking a ban on circumventing digital locks, and have even argued that such a move is necessary to make Canada compliant with international agreements. Copyright reformers like Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor of law, have argued that isn’t true.

Geist is a strong supporter of some changes in the bill, such as more relaxed rules around “fair dealing,” a similar concept to what is known in this country as “fair use”; if the bill passes, it would explicitly allow Canadians to use parts of copyrighted works for parody, satire and for education. But he is concerned about the digital locks provision. And he’s not alone. In an e-mail exchange, Geist noted that all three Canadian opposition parties have registered their opposition to new digital locks rules; only the ruling Conservatives support it, and they’ll need at least one other party’s support to get it through Parliament.