Red Hat founder Bob Young speaks out on copyright bill

Lulu Inc. CEO Bob Young is a major voice in the open source software industry, but according to him the entire community has been unjustifiably ignored throughout the government’s copyright reform initiatives.

Last year, the Conservative government vowed to adopt copyright laws which would make it illegal to modify or remove any device or software fitted with a technical protection measures (TPMs). After months of hearsay and numerous delays, the buzz on Parliament Hill now suggests a proposed copyright bill from Industry Minister Jim Prentice is imminent.

In the wake of these rumours – which many industry activists have begun referring to as the Canadian version of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) – a new open source software alliance has added their name to the lengthy list of opposition to the Industry Minister’s soon-to-be-unveiled legislation.

“The copyright philosophy behind the U.S. DMCA is that it’s illegal to do what software engineers do every day of the week and what they’ll have to continue to do in order to build better technology for all companies,” Bob Young, spokesperson for the Canadian Software Innovation Alliance (CSIA) and a former founder and CEO at Red Hat Inc., said. “The biggest concern is we’re going to have law substitute for good technology. We’re crafting these laws without having anyone from the technology industry engaged in the process.”

One of the CSIA’s primary concerns is the impact that potential copyright reform could have on the open source community. In a letter to the Industry Minister earlier this week, the CSIA said that because open source developers rely on copyright law to create their software, failing to balance restrictions on software modification would severely limit innovation.

“Software development requires access to computer programs for many reasons, including the need to develop innovative functionality extensions or follow-on software, to undertake security research, to make code interoperable, and to research functionality, including reverse engineering code to identify functionality,” the letter stated. “Sound copyright policy requires a proper balancing of these rights and restrictions, giving creators some control over their creations while ensuring that others can work with and build upon them without prohibitive or unfair restrictions.”

Young said the proposed bill will cater too heavily to the content industry and not to the engineers and software developers that are going to be most severely impacted by the new laws. The proposed anti-circumvention legislation, he said, is similar to making the use and ownership of screw-drivers and pliers illegal because they can be used to commit crimes such as burglary.

“Software languages are simply a form of expression and it’s neither good nor bad, just like the English language is neither good nor bad,” he said. “But anti-circumvention measures make the actual use of language illegal and not the criminal behaviour. I have no problem with the government working with the RCMP to come up with laws that make it easier to throw the real crooks in jail, but I do have a problem with stopping software developers from innovating.”

But not everybody shares the same viewpoint of the CSIA. In April, copyright reform supporters – which included members of the entertainment industry – got together for a panel discussion on intellectual property rights in Toronto. Featured speakers such as Pickering-Scarborough East MP Dan McTeague, EMI Music President Deane Cameron, and Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA) President Graham Henderson, got together to support the government’s proposed copyright plan. Many of these speakers stressed the need for strict copyright legislation to keep the Canadian entertainment and software industries thriving.

“We need to recognize that Canada signed a treaty saying that it would implement World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaty,” MP Dan McTeague said. “Canada lags behind many nations in this. It’s an important debate for politicians in this country.”

The WIPO treaty, adopted in 1996, stresses the need for additional copyright protections due to advances (at the time) in information technology. The treaty’s champions the need for including anti-circumvention laws for TPMs.

Other panelists, like Graham Henderson, president of the CRIA agreed: “Intellectual property rights in general are very poorly understood in Canada. We don’t talk, think or write a lot about it. It’s created a missing link in Canada’s innovation agenda.”

But industry executives like Young said that Canadian legislations need to stop being pressured by content producers and international bodies and instead focus on doing what’s right for innovation on its own soil.

“I would step back and look at this issue from a first principles point-of-view,” he said. “What are we trying to achieve? We are trying to throw content pirates in jail, so we should be looking at homegrown Canadians solutions to do this.”

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