Free Software and the Canadian Federal Election 2008

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is a donor supported charity founded in 1985 and based in Boston, MA, USA. The FSF has a worldwide mission to promote computer user freedom and to defend the rights of all free software users. They have sister organizations in Europe, India and Latin America.

Since any inclusion of legal protection for “technological measures” in the law regulates what software citizens are allowed to run on their own computer, they have an interest in this issue. Canadians who are part of the Free Software Community really need to get involved in this election to ensure that the rights of Canadian Free Software users are protected. Richard Stallman, founder and president of the FSF, requested that I write this article to give our community some ideas of what to do.

While it would be great if I could suggest what party to vote for, this area of policy is not that simple. There are shining lights that need to be highlighted, but we really need people to get involved in their local riding and find out who is best to vote for in that riding. I wrote an article yesterday with my current thinking about who those shining lights are and what I am thinking about in my own riding of Ottawa South.

You don’t need to be doing this investigating alone. There are existing groups that you can join with to help.

  • Digital Copyright Canada, a site I run, has an Election 2008 section. We have a blog where we have been posting articles tagged with the riding so that you can quickly find your riding (via a list or typing in your postal code), and see what others have written. If you get in touch with any candidate or your incumbent MP, please post directly or let us know the details so we can post.
  • Fair Copyright for Canada started as a facebook group, and has expanded to having chapters across Canada. These are fellow Canadians just like you, concerned about copyright, software, and related issues. A number of the local chapters have WIKI pages where they are posting details about ridings and candidates in their region.
  • Online Rights Canada is jointly supported by the Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). They have a tool that allows people to send letters to their past MPs which they are talking about modifying to allow people to send letters to all the candidates in their riding. CIPPIC itself may be sending questions to the parties, as they did in the 2006 and 2004 general elections.

Each of the above groups have links to other groups and to people who are writing blogs about the topic. One of the sites always worth reading is law professor Michael Geist’s blog.

Quick facts

On June 20, 2005 the then Liberal Government under Prime Minister Paul Martin tabled Bill C-60: “An Act to amend the Copyright Act”. This bill provided legal protection for “technological measures” and prohibited circumvention “for the purpose of an act that is an infringement of the copyright”. It was a bit vague about what types of technologies were being regulated, and also included a special prohibition against people providing services where the provider “knows or ought to know that providing the service will result in an infringement of the copyright or moral rights”. It was uncertain whether simply providing multi-purpose software could be considered a service.

On June 12, 2008 the then Conservative Government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper tabled Bill C-61: “An Act to amend the Copyright Act” (number a coincidence). This bill provided legal protection for “technological measures” in a way that much more closely mirrors the USA’s controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It clearly protects both access controls (such as those applied to copyrighted content) and use controls (such as those applied to hardware and software which accesses/manipulates content). There are many ways that Canadian copyright amended by Bill C-61 would be far worse than US copyright amended by the DMCA. The DMCA stated that their living “Fair Use” regime was not affected by the anti-circumvention legislation (IE: that fair use was still protected), but in C-61 it was made clear that technological measures were intended to trump our already excessively limited “Fair Dealings” provisions. (See: Canadians fed US-style copyright legislation? I wish!).

The New Democratic Party has named Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins–James Bay, their Digital Culture Spokesperson. This party is the 4’th largest party in the previous parliament with 30 members in the house when the election was called. This is the only party that has named a Digital Culture spokesperson. Mr. Angus is a musician who is a member of the Canadian Music Creators Coalition, and while he is not a software author he has been our greatest ally in parliament.

Prior to Mr. Angus being elected in 2004 the (analog?) culture/heritage critic for the NDP was a playwright who believed in maximizing copyright, and supported any and all ways to protect copyright (including “technological measures”, etc). The NDP should stand as a reminder that what matters most to us is not the parties and their platforms, but what individual people become members of parliament. The same transformative change that happened in the NDP to make them one of our worst opponents to being one of our greatest allies could easily happen with all the other parties who will have members in the next parliament.

Russell McOrmond is a self employed consultant, policy coordinator for CLUE: Canada’s Association for Free/Libre and Open Source Software, co-coordinator for Getting Open Source Logic INto Governments (GOSLING), and host for Digital Copyright Canada.

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