Charlie Angus brings copyright reform back into the spotlight
Last month, NDP MP (and former member of the Grievous Angels) Charlie Angus shook up Canada’s copyright debate by proposing two reforms. Angus was outspoken against the government’s last copyright bill, but he’s attracted criticism from all sides with this latest move. But that was basically his goal—more debate on copyright reform. For musicians and other copyright holders dealing with shifts in technology, this debate is a crucial one.
Flexible Fair Dealing
Fair dealing permits the use of copyrighted works for certain purposes without permission. Currently, there are only five categories that qualify: research, private study, criticism, review, and news reporting. Noticeably absent are things like parody, sampling, time or format shifting, etc. However, the Supreme Court ruled that “[fair dealing] must not be interpreted restrictively” and introduced six factors to consider. Angus’ motion (M-105) would add the words “such as” to make the list of fair dealing categories illustrative rather than exhaustive, and it would put those six factors right into the act.
Flexible fair dealing has been called for by many groups, but others still characterize it as the “legalization of theft”. Nevermind that copyright infringement isn’t theft, but American law has long since had a similar principle in the doctrine of fair use—initially common law, but incorporated in the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, much like Angus proposes for Canada. Fair dealing/use isn’t “theft,” but part of the copyright bargain.
Flexible fair dealing would help to future-proof copyright law by accommodating new technologies, practices, and forms of expression. Fair dealing isn’t free dealing either, since the factual tests of fairness must still be met, but the worry expressed by creator groups is that it will affect royalties—hence, Angus’ other proposal.
Expanding the Levy
Angus’ private members’ bill (Bill C-499) would expand the levy on blank media (such as CDs) to include potentially any “audio recording device,” defined as:
a device that contains a permanently embedded data storage medium, including solid state or hard disk, designed, manufactured and advertised for the purpose of copying sound recordings, excluding any prescribed kind of recording device
Yet, dedicated digital audio players are quickly being replaced by multi-purpose mobile computers. Should the levy apply to iPhones as well as iPods? This definition could potentially include Blackberry, Android and even laptop or desktop computers as well. This has attracted criticism from many, including Industry Minister Tony Clement and Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore, the cabinet ministers responsible for copyright. Beyond the wide spectrum of devices, what about the variety of works? What about movies, TV shows, electronic books, and other copyrighted works that are increasingly available on electronic devices?
This reform is short-sighted. The initial levy proposed for digital audio players in 2002 (struck down by the courts—hence a bill to make it legal) was $21/GB, which would leave a 120 GB iPod (less than $300 today) with a $2520 tax. How much would this levy be, and how long until that amount becomes absurd? Of course, the levies could be lowered (though, the CD levy has increased…), but imagine how quickly legislators would adapt, compared to the effect on consumers, innovation, culture and the music business in the meantime.
The “Nuance-Free” Zone
Angus criticizes the Tories for living in a “nuance-free zone,” either being “tough on crime” (Bill C-61) or “fighting against taxes” (Moore’s comments on Bill C-499). Yet, Angus has his own two-dimensional approach to copyright. He claims,
“There are only two possible options for protecting artistic property: either you lock down and sue or you compensate.”
Angus seems to conflate two separate issues—fair dealing and remuneration. It’s as if he thinks that the levy would justify—even pay for—more flexible fair dealing. Fair dealing isn’t something to be purchased; the Supreme Court affirms it as a “user’s right.” Likewise, the compensation problem would still exist even if flexible fair dealing was already around (see: the U.S. and fair use). This isn’t about crime/tax reduction, but it isn’t about “compensation for access” either. It’s about adapting copyright law to a world where copying is the norm.
Business models based on selling and restricting copies are struggling because the Internet is a copying machine, while those who are successful aren’t relying on copyright. Leveraging technology and consumer behaviour is an alternative to litigation, locks and levies, and effective copyright reform should enable that. This bill would just set up toll booths on computers. An iTax won’t solve anyone’s problems.
Private members’ bills rarely become law, and the Tories plan to table new copyright legislation this Spring. The levy expansion has been rejected by Clement and Moore, though they haven’t taken sides on flexible fair dealing. Angus wanted to kick-start the next round of conversation, and that he did. Now it’s the government’s turn.
Blaise Alleyne is a musician, programmer and writer. He songwrites and performs as a solo singer/songwriter as well as with his folk rock band, Fishkiss. He also records and performs with other artists as a violinist and arranger.
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