After trying repeatedly in a minority parliament, the Tories are once again attempting to change Canada’s copyright laws, which have remained essentially unchanged for decades. Bill C-11 was introduced at the end of September and it has already encountered significant opposition from opposition parties and members of the public.
The Conservatives’ first attempt at copyright reform in 2008 received significant push-back, essentially because it favoured the rights of content creators and distributors, over those of consumers. The government then held a consultation process, receiving submissions and soliciting feedback from Canadians during the summer of 2009.
Although the latest revision to the bill deals with some of the concerns expressed by Canadians, it fails to address the primary issue with the legislation, which was the blanket ban on breaking digital locks.
A digital lock is any software that is designed to prevent someone from using a piece of technology in certain ways. They are often used to prevent people from making copies of songs and videos, but they are also used for things like preventing consumers from installing software on their cellphones and even fixing their own cars. Similar digital locks are also used on movie and software CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays.
Most of us expect that when we buy a book from a store, we will be able to read it. But this is not necessarily the case when the content comes in digital format. Purchasing an e-book on an e-reader that contains a digital lock means that you cannot necessarily read it on a computer or a different company’s e-reader. In fact, under the government’s proposed legislation, it would actually be illegal to do so.
This has been the case in the U.S. since the adoption of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998. That legislation has led to some unfortunate unintended consequences, which Canada seems determined to follow. Just because someone breaks a digital lock doesn’t not mean they are violating anyone’s copyright.
For example, playing a legally-purchased DVD on a computer, or even an iPod, requires it to be decrypted. Some computer programs are developed in the open, where the source code — the language used to develop the software — is available for anyone to work with. Since software developed in this manner is often not for profit and since there is no way of hiding the decryption method, the only way to play a DVD is to use a piece of software like DeCSS, which is designed to circumvent digital locks and is therefore illegal under the DMCA.
So, under U.S. law, it is sometimes illegal to play a movie, even if it was purchased legally, and the same will be true in Canada if Bill C-11 makes it through the House (and there’s no reason to believe otherwise now that the Conservatives have a majority government, even though all the opposition parties have come out against the bill).
Preventing consumers from playing material that they have paid for, on the device of their choosing, in an egregious violation of private property rights. Making it illegal to produce or distribute the software necessary to do so also violates free speech rights, since a software’s source code is nothing more than words that are interpreted by a computer. In response, some people in the United States have protested the DMCA’s ban on circumventing digital locks by printing the DeCSS source code on t-shirts (as pictured above). The idea being, that it is ridiculous to outlaw the transmission of information, which can easily be printed on someone’s clothing.
The only reason for governments to enact laws that go this far is to prop-up sectors of the economy, such as the music and movie industries, that have outdated business models, which make them uncompetitive in the age of the Internet.
Instead of creating artificial barriers through legislation, companies should be forced to come up with their own competitive and innovative new business ideas that allow them to make money by providing consumers with products and services that are useful to them. Apple’s iTunes Store is a classic example of a technology that has allowed the traditional media companies to make money online (though it’s not the perfect example, as many of the songs sold there contain digital locks).
Is it really necessary for Canada to go down this path? One that makes it illegal to read material that was legally purchased and turns distributing a block of text that can be printed on the back of a t-shirt into a crime? The Conservatives seem to think so, but it’s certainly not in the interest of a majority of Canadians.
Photograph Courtesy Ed Hunsinger/flickr