Copyright critics promote cause with comic book

For those who flip to the “funny pages” when they pick up a newspaper, a Vancouver-based copyright reform activist group has created a comic book to voice its concerns on the Conservative government’s controversial Bill C-61.

The 51st State is a free, clickable comic book created by Appropriation Art Coalition artist and co-founder Gordon Duggan. The book chronicles the entire battle over Canadian copyright reform – which it depicts as a battle between the “evil emissaries of American interests” against the “fantastic freedom of expression fighters.” The comic includes hundreds of links to Web sites, articles, and other resources, with every quote bubble clickable as a hyperlink.

“The point of the comic was to try and get as much information in as small a space as possible,” Duggan said about the nine-page comic book. “A lot of this information as been scattered, sort of like the people fighting against this legislation. The cartoon captions are all real quotations, made by the politicians and activists depicted, so if you see something you’re intrigued about you can click on it and read it in more depth.”

The comic book was released online just prior to last week’s Bill C-61 announcement. The long-awaited legislation, which would amend the Copyright Act to prohibit users from removing technical protection measures (TPMs) on software or other digital media, has been referred by industry activists as the Canadian equivalent of the heavily criticized U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Vocal opponents to the bill such as University of Law professor Michael Geist, Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow, NDP MP Charlie Angus, and Barenaked Ladies front man Stephen Page are all depicted as freedom of expression fighters in the comic book. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Industry Minister Jim Prentice, and Liberal MP Dan McTeague, and Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA) President Graham Henderson are portrayed as supporters for the U.S.-inspired copyright reform movement.

“If the tobacco industry submitted studies to the government that showed it had no damaging effects on health, these statistics would be dismissed,” Duggan said. “But yet when the music and film industry put these studies in front of the government, they ignore their own studies in favour of those industries. This is no different than writing health laws based on stats from the tobacco industry.”

The primary motivation of the comic book, according to Duggan, is to combat government spin on the issue that the legislation has been “made in Canada.” Duggan’s Appropriation Art Coalition, represents over 600 artists and educators in the art sector, but has also received support from large organizations such as the Independent Media Arts Alliance (IMAA), Canadian Art Museum Directors’ Organization (CAMDO), and the Canadian Museums Association (CMA). The group was founded three years ago to voice concerns about copyright policy and its effect on artists.

“Our group was founded on three principles that we need to produce work: one is fair access, the other is certainty of access, and the final thing is anti-circumvention has to be tied to infringing activity,” Duggan said. “In terms of those three points, we can stand up and say that we absolutely condemn the legislation.”

“And there’s no ambiguity about whether or not we’re representing the desires of our group, because artists have signed on specifically to the main issues of our organization,” he added. “Whereas a lot of the musicians that are members of SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) aren’t aware that they’ve authorized that group to speak on their behalf about copyright reform.”

While Duggan said reception to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, he admitted that some online users have criticized the comic as anti-Americanism.

“If you hold up ‘51st State’ as a fright wig then you are indeed bashing the U.S.,” blogger Jeffrey McManus, posted in response to a Boing Boing posting about the comic. “There’s got to be a rhetorically more effective way to get a point across than to resort to scummy nationalism. Nationalism is a huge scam. People behind this issue shouldn’t need to resort to it.”

In response to such criticism, Duggan defended the comic book, saying that much of the policies that have heavily influence Bill C-61 has come from U.S. interest groups and entertainment associations.

“If you read the comic, you’ll also notice a lot of the quotes that most strongly criticize the American position on copyright are coming from U.S.-based Web sites, not Canadian ones,” he said.

As for the IT angle on this issue, shortly after the introduction of Bill C-61, IT security professionals began expressing their concerns over anti-TPM circumvention legislation and its impact security research projects. Brian O’Higgins, CTO at Third Brigade, said research techniques such as reverse engineering obfuscated and encrypted malware or applying patches to TPM-enabled software are just a few of the challenges security researchers can expect to face.

“I worry about a heavy hand in regards to TPMs,” he said. “Government oversight on security research doesn’t feel like a good thing. One of the biggest unintended consequences of the U.S. DMCA was that it caused a research chill in that country.”

“The U.S. DMCA hasn’t done anything to stop peer-to-peer file sharing and when the U.S. does go after these offenders, they’ve used the countries existing copyright laws,” he added. “Security research is in the public’s best interest and we don’t want to have the delays we now see the U.S. where companies need the clearance of lawyer to keep doing this.”

And while Bill C-61 includes provisions that allow people to remove technological measures for the purposes of reverse engineering, security testing, encryption research, many of the bill’s opponents have argued the exceptions don’t go far enough – superseded by the fact that the legislation would make it illegal to provide, market or import tools designed to enable circumvention.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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