Copyright Revisited

I've been paying a little more attention to the news that last few days. That is to say, I've been paying some attention as opposed to my usual none. Specifically, I've been watching as things progress surrounding the outrage over proposed Bill C-61.

For the uninformed, bill C-61 is an allegedly "made in Canada" law to regulate copyright law in the interests of both copyright holders and Canadian consumers. There's a lot of controversy surrounding the bill, which closely resembles the DMCA act passed in the stats in '97.

I'm not going to tell you how awful and restrictive the bill is. You can find out about that by reading articles elsewhere. Instead, I want to talk about Bill C-61 in some very simple terms and examine some things that I'm not sure everybody is aware of.

Personally, I'm looking at this from 2 different angles:
1) As a consumer, I'm annoyed that the government feels the need to step in and regulate where and how I use and enjoy copyrighted material that I may or may not have purchased.
2) As a software developer, I'm glad that Canada is finally taking action to pass some official laws governing copyright with respect to digital content.

Here's what I see as the problem, and what's pissing people off:
The government is basically telling us something that everybody should already know but nobody wants to admit: that infringing on copyrights is illegal and violators should be punished. We've been stealing copyright protected materials since we bought our first VCRs and photocopiers, and we've gotten away with it. But now the government is taking an official stand and telling us it's not okay to steal, and for some reason we resent them for it.

There's also a common misconception among Canadians regarding the downloading of copyrighted material such as television and music. About two years ago the government proposed a similar set of laws, which died on the table. Somehow this sent the message to Canadians that stealing music and software and televisions shows was okay. And Canada doesn't have appropriate laws pertaining to copyright to deal with digital information and properties.

In the US, before the DMCA was introduced, copyrighted material operated under "fair use" laws. In a nutshell, these laws said "go ahead and do whatever you want, as long as you don't violate any user agreements, acknowledge the original copyright holder, do so with permission, and change a specific percentage of the material. Oh, and don't try to profit from it."
The DMCA changed this and took a more hard-line approach.

Canada, on the other hand, has never had such laws or regulations that I'm aware of. And we still don't. But does that make infringing on copyrights okay? Of course not. All it means is that the legal system doesn't know what to do about it. For years we've been basing legal disputes on laws passed in the U.S. because we don't have our own set of applicable laws in Canada. Bill C-61 is an attempt by the government to address this problem.

Now, this doesn't mean I'm a supporter of C-61. The bill is far too restrictive and a lot of the fine print doesn't make any sense. I'd hate to see this passed as a law in it's current form. But I still think the Canadian government has the right idea, to a point.

From the government's perspective, I think the problem is that, when it comes to copyrighted material and digital media, the definitions of right and wrong are rather unclear.

Take music, for example. If I purchase a CD, what have I actually purchased? The right to own a copy of the disc? The right to listen to the disc? How about the right to play the disc for others? Can I make a personal copy of the disc for my own use? If I want the album I purchased in CD form on my personal MP3 player, is the expectation that I'll purchase a digital copy instead of just ripping the files from the disc? If I lend the CD to a friend and he copies it, who's liable? What happens if I share the digital version through iTunes on a shared network for the listening (but not copying) pleasure of others?

Technology today is very versatile and offers many options and freedoms when it comes to digital media and how we enjoy it. But, like a VCR, the technology opens the door to uses that may or may not actually be legal, and those definitions of legality haven't ever been made clear to Canadians. Unless, of course, you've read all of the fine print in the user license agreements. But even then, none of these rights are standardized. They're left up to the discretion of the content creators, and will vary from product to product.

Bill C-61, as I see it, is a misguided attempt to address this problem as well.

Piracy isn't going anywhere. As long as there are people in the world, there will be thieves. C-61 won't really change anything. All it will do is make an example of a few unlucky folks who get caught. The rest of us will still photocopy and record and transfer and download just as much as we do now.

I think the public would be better served if, instead of looking at ways to to further legislate copyright protection, we left that control in the hands of content creators as it is now. We won't stop piracy, but companies and the government alike could at least try to reduce it if they were a little more open-minded and payed attention to what's happening in the digital marketplace.

If anything, music piracy rates have likely dropped in recent years. More and more businesses and content creators are realizing that if they offer their products up in a digital format that's easy to access and priced affordably (i.e. $1.00/song download or $10.00/album on iTunes) that most people will still pay for the content. All the public really wants is more freedom of choice as consumers, and many companies are finally catching on.

It's a difficult issue to address, as there are many considerations to take into account, and there's a certain amount public expectation that needs to be addressed. But let us all acknowledge that we're pissed off about Bill C-61 because we've grown accustomed to illegally getting something for nothing, and that the government has finally caught on.
And if the government feels the need to address copyright issues by passing new laws, let's let them. But let's help them do it right. Let's make sure they know what our expectations are, both as consumers and content creators. Instead of pointing fingers, let's work together to make sure that the interests of Canadians really are being met.

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