Industry Canada holds off on copyright reform bill

An unprecedented show of opposition from Canadians may have delayed the rumoured copyright reform bill from being introduced in Parliament, according to industry activists.

Contrary to what was expected by many Parliamentary observers, Industry Minister Jim Prentice said in the House of Commons Monday that the “bill would not be tabled in the House until such time as myself and the minister of Canadian Heritage, Status of Women and Office Languages are satisfied.”

This admission came after Timmins-James Bay NDP MP Charlie Angus accused the minister of “rolling out the red carpet for corporate lobbyists and the U.S. ambassador” for his consideration of tabling an unbalanced piece of legislation. Angus also chastised the minister for refusing to meet with universities, consumer groups, artists, and Canadians on the issue.

Because of the lack of consultation, Michael Geist, research chair of Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, took matters into his own hands last week by starting a digital awareness campaign last week on both Facebook and YouTube. In the one week since its launch, his Fair Copyright Facebook group has amassed over 15,000 members. Geist was surprised at the bill’s delay and attributes to the massive public outcry from Canadian bloggers and Internet users.

“What we’ve seen over the last ten days is perhaps somewhat unprecedented in the size and speed on which the Canadian public has found its voice on balanced copyright,” Geist said. “We have seen how this issue matters to Canadians before, but the sheer numbers of this was unprecedented. At the same time though, so too was the legislation that was about to be introduced.”

And while certainly nothing like it has been seen in Canada before, the proposed bill had been compared to the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The comparisons stem from rumours that it included anti-circumvention provisions for technical provision measures (TPMs), a tool used to restrict the use of a digital work, which would make it illegal to modify, improve, back-up or make products that interact with any devices fitted with TPMs.

“The only people who like this bill are American companies who basically see this as an opportunity to overrule Parliament,” Cory Doctorow, former director of the San Francisco-based Electronic Freedom Foundation group and co-editor of tech blog Boing Boing, said. “If Parliament passes a law that says you’re allowed to copy a video to watch it later, that law goes away the minute there’s some technology that prevents you from doing it. So, it’s not surprising that American companies would support something that allows them to have this business model without all that pesky intervention from Canada’s government.”

But despite the delay, both Geist and Doctorow are wary to start celebrating the bill’s death too soon – an opinion shared by Pippa Lawson, executive director at the University of Ottawa’s Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC).

“The concern now is that the government might be trying to delay the bill, but go ahead as planned later,” Lawson said. “That would be a real mistake in my view and they should really be listening to the people and redrafting the legislation.”

The window of opportunity for a short delay only leaves the minister until the end of the week, as the House of Commons will take its winter break after this Friday’s session.

“If it isn’t introduced this week, we’re looking at late January or February,” Geist said. “And if the minister does move into that longer period, it presents a terrific opportunity to consult with the Canadian public.”

But what may convince the minister to consult with the user community could be more events such as last Saturday’s open house meeting in his Calgary constituency office. Concerned residents from the minister’s riding showed up to his office in protest of the bill and, according to Geist, the minister was even subject to a mini-scrum from some of the reporters in attendance.

“Copyright was the primary topic of conversation for most of the afternoon,” Geist said. “There were some people who apparently drove six hours down from Edmonton to have the opportunity to spend two minutes with the minister expressing their concerns about copyright. That really highlights the passion that we’re seeing amongst many Canadians.”

Prentice told his constituents the same thing he expressed to the House on Monday, reiterating that the government has an obligation to bring in a copyright bill that implements the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) Internet treaty – a move promised by Canadian officials in 1997. The treaty provides additional protections for copyright due to advances (at the time) in information technology, including anti-circumvention laws for TPMs. But opposition to the DMCA-like reform has argued that the government will be better served to create legislation without help from the decade old treaty.

“For starters, there is no reason we have to adopt the treaty and our entire obligation exists only because we said we would do it,” Doctorow said. “Even if we adopted it, the government ought to notice that enforcement costs in the U.S. have been incredibly high with over 20,000 lawsuits, and the benefits have really been non-existent. It’s not that the treaty is from another era, but rather its ideals are meant to turn us back to another era.”

Doctorow said the minister now has an opportunity to salvage something from all of this and schedule meetings with users and creators to strike a copyright bill that fairly balanced for all Canadians.

“We’ve killed various versions of this bill now twice, as C-60 died two times because of extremely viviparous opposition,” Doctorow said. “And what’s most surprising with this whole situation is the minister would so badly misjudge the willingness of Canadians to go to the wall to fight this.” He said that it has again been proven that Canadians care about this issue and continuing to let the U.S. effectively write Canadian legislation is a bad idea for the Conservative government.

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