December 14, 2007 | By Danny O'Brien

Copyright in Canada: No Longer Business As Usual

It's been a roller-coaster few weeks for digital rights activists in Canada. A few weeks ago, rumors began circulating that the current minority Conservative government was going to present a copyright reform act before the New Year.

Unlike previous reform attempts, this new law was preceded by no public consultation. It's long been known that the US government and media companies are pressuring Canada to "normalize" its IP law with its southern neighbour.

But both the Canadian public and its creative industries are far more sceptical of the benefits of over-restrictive IP regulation along the lines of many current United States laws. The major leading independent labels in Canada resigned from the CRIA (Canada's RIAA), and artist's groups like the Canadian Music Creators Coalition (which includes Avril Lavigne, Sarah McLachlan, and Barenaked Ladies) oppose lawsuits against fans. The Songwriters Association of Canada recently proposed a voluntary collective license, similar to EFF's own proposals, to solve the problems of artist remuneration for digital distribution without increasing the strictures of copyright.

The signal failure of the government to communicate with these group and its apparent intent to slip the bill through at the very end of the Christmas parliamentary session all indicated reforms that weren't intended for the Canadian audience. It showed an administration that believed that importing IP law was a simple enough trade for US approval, and one that would gather nothing more than a muted protest from those not involved in the backroom negotiations.

It could not have been more wrong. Despite the unseasonal timing of the bill's announcement, and with no confirmed text of the bill, Net users in Canada quickly created their own opportunities for public discussion. Spearheaded by Canadian law professor Michael Geist, over 20,000 concerned activists joined and co-ordinated their actions over a Facebook group. Thousands of them sent letters to their MPs through the Canadian grassroots site, Online Rights Canada, co-sponsored by EFF, to urge the government to consider fixing copyright law, not tightening it. And dozens visited the bill's backer, Industry Minister Jim Prentice, in person at his constituency Christmas meal last weekend. They brought food for the charity collection, and hard copyright questions for the minister — and filmed and blogged it all.

The day after, Prentice announced he was not going to introduce the bill on its scheduled date of this Tuesday. By Wednesday, sources close the ministry were dropping hints that it would still be introduced before Christmas. Finally, on Thursday, Prentice's press secretary confirmed that the bill had been delayed until the New Year.

Industry Canada's hesitancy is an indication of how radically the political scene around IP has changed in the last few years. Copyright is now a consumer issue, not a set of deals between private industries. And, thanks to the Net, consumers can now learn, react, and protest to what troubles at a speed that can outrun the usual government messaging tricks.

In the final session of Parliament, when it became clear that Jim Prentice was not going to present his bill, a cry went up from the floor: "What about copyright?" It's a cry that politicians should expect to hear from their audiences a lot more often — and which they should measure that against the whispers of the content industry lobbyists far more carefully in future.

Online Rights Canada now has a dedicated website to track news and activism against the current bill: visit http://www.copyrightforcanadians.ca/ for the latest information from Canada and the Net.


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