Did copyright reform prevent a Conservative majority?

While another Conservative minority most likely signals the return of the controversial Bill C-61 on copyright reform, at least one industry observer says the election results could warn the government about the political potency of digital and technology issues

If Calgary Centre-North MP Jim Prentice is indeed named the Industry Minister once again, it is likely he’ll make good on his promise to amend Canada’s Copyright Act sooner rather than later. Michael Geist, research chair of Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa and notable blogger on electronic law, hopes this time around that the government will listen to the thousands of Canadians and technology industry stakeholders against the bill and attempt to reform it.

“If the government were to introduce essentially the same bill again, it’s going to run into the same kind of criticism,” Geist said. That criticism includes tens of thousands of Canadians who protested the bill through Geist’s own Fair Copyright Facebook group, as well as, strong opposition from a powerful business coalition comprised of corporate giants such as Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp.

“We’ve also seen a crystallizing of opposition to the bill from the NDP and a fair number of Liberals MPs,” he added. “It would be prudent to take some of those criticisms to heart, and even if there’s no formal consultation before reintroducing the legislation, make an effort to implement some of the concerns that have been so widely expressed.”

The strongest evidence to support Geist’s claims may have come in the Edmonton-Strathcona riding, which saw NDP candidate Linda Duncan upset favoured Conservative incumbent MP Rahim Jaffer.

“I identified that area as a potential copyright riding, which includes the University of Alberta, last January,” Geist said. “The separation between the two candidates was only a few hundred votes, so it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that a few hundred people voted the way they did because of the copyright bill.

“No Bill C-61 and perhaps those votes don’t even turn up,” he added.

For those late to the copyright debate, the proposed bill entitled “An Act to amend the Copyright Act,” has been compared to the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) – a comparison which stems from the fact that the bill contains anti-circumvention provisions for technical provision measures (TPMs) which would make it illegal to modify, improve, back-up or make products that interact with any devices fitted with the tool.

Industry Minister Jim Prentice has stressed the need to pass the bill in order to ratify Canada’s obligations to the World Intellectual Property Organization copyright treaty – which the country signed onto in 1996. But many of the bill’s opponents, including Geist, have pointed to intense pressures from U.S.-based industry and government organizations as the primary factor in the bill’s creation.

Geist hopes the upcoming U.S. election, which according to the latest polls has Democratic candidate Barack Obama leading his Republican rival by nearly 14 points, will help ease the pressures on Conservative lawmakers and lead to a more balanced, “made in Canada” styled legislation.

“I don’t think the fact that there’s a Democrat in the White House will mean we’re going to see dramatic changes on intellectual property in the U.S.,” he said. “But from a Canadian perspective it could buy the government time to rethink their approach on copyright. If Obama becomes President-elect in November, he doesn’t take office until January and it’s another three months before he gets his various people into office.”

As for other issues in the realm of technology, CATA President and CEO John Reid expressed disappointment that the electoral process did not offer any strong debates surrounding IT or the creation of a knowledge-based Canada. “We need to provide overriding context, so we can fully understand the power of information technology,” he said. “There really wasn’t a strong statement made about where we should be moving in the future and the needed resources to get there.”

Issues such as anti-spam, piracy and text messaging came out in the debates and are important to resolve, Reid said, but the government needs to take a more holistic on how technology will play a role in the information economy.

“For example, if you look at some of the levers that we think are in difficulty, certainly the SR&ED (Scientific Research and Experimental Development) tax credit system is acting not much like an incentive system, but more like an audit system,” he said. “We have to look at our existing tools and how they’re working to advance the performance of both small and large companies.”

Geist agreed that many digital issues outside of the copyright reform bill need to be addressed by government leaders, although he was somewhat encouraged that in the face of a global economic downturn – which dominated nearly all of the election debates – that all the major parties dedicated some minor discussion on technology policy.

Both NDP and Green Party MPs, he said, stressed strong support for net neutrality throughout the campaign, while the Liberals emphasized the need for universal access to high-speed Internet. Geist also cited the Conservative party’s commitment to anti-spam legislation, preventing companies from charging fees for unsolicited text messages, and its promise to strengthen the powers of the new Commissioner of Complaints for Telecommunications.

“While copyright will remain the big controversial issue, we’ve been promised anti-spam legislation and just prior to voting, the Conservatives started talking about funding for broadband connectivity,” he said. While not the top issues today, Geist said, expect them to continue to percolate in the years to come.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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