Copyright law needs locksmith, say locals

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Fair use at risk unless digital lock rules loosened

The federal government needs to change its new copyright law to protect basic rights from digital locks, say local analysts.

The Conservative government tabled Bill C-32, the Copyright Modernization Act, on June 2. The first major update to the law since 1997, it would legalize many activities that Canadians already do in their everyday lives, such as copying CDs to iPods.

But it also gives companies the right to put digital locks on songs, films and software to prevent reproduction. Anyone who breaks such a lock to make a copy — even for private use — could face a $5,000 fine.

That means those locks can take away all rights of fair use, says Trevor Tye, a St. Albert blogger and web designer who monitors copyright law. “It’s going to stifle everything.”

New doors opened

The law is otherwise a big improvement over the previous version, Tye says, which vanished when Parliament was prorogued.

The bill, heavily revised after months of consultation, would make it legal to unlock cellphones, record TV shows to watch later, and make backup copies — activities many Canadians have been doing for years.

It would also expand fair use or fair dealing provisions. In addition to research, private study, reporting, criticism and review, Canadians would now be able to make digital copies of a product for use in satire, parody and education. They would also be able to use those copies in new works, such as remixes.

This would be of immense help to libraries, notes Peter Bailey, director of the St. Albert Public Library. “We’re still back in the previous century when it comes to interlibrary loans.” Under the current law, libraries are not allowed to send books electronically even if the book is in electronic form — they have to print it. “For university libraries where 50 per cent of their collection is electronic, that’s a problem.”

The bill would also relax penalties for non-commercial copiers. Right now, Canadians who illegally download an album from a file-sharing site could be sued for up to $20,000 per song. The new bill would reduce this to a maximum of $5,000 for all illegal downloads made prior to the lawsuit. Penalties for commercial copiers will stay the same.

Freedoms locked away?

But most of these new freedoms disappear if a digital lock is in place. The proposed law makes it illegal to break a digital lock with very few exceptions, including law enforcement, national security and encryption research.

That would make it illegal to play a DVD on a Linux-based computer, Tye says, as those computers have to break encryption locks to play DVDs. Depending on the nature of the lock, it could also make it illegal to copy a song you bought and downloaded onto your computer to more than one handheld device, even if was for personal use. These locks are also becoming widespread.

It would also make it more difficult to borrow e-books at the library, Bailey says. If you borrow a book, for example, you can easily renew it, lend it to a friend or photocopy it. You couldn’t do any of these things with an e-book under the bill, as it requires digital loans to self-destruct after five days.

Other groups have also sounded the alarm over locks. The Retail Council of Canada said that parts of the bill unfairly restrict consumer choice. “Creating locks for legally purchased material and punishing consumers with excessive fines is counterproductive,” said spokesperson Terrance Oakey in a release, and could drive people to the black market.

The Canadian Library Association warned in another release that these locks could stifle innovation, and called on the government to allow lock breaking for legal purposes such as fair use.

It’s a pretty balanced bill overall, says Edmonton-St. Albert member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber, but the digital lock rules will probably have to be revised in committee. “I suspect there’s going to be some fine-tuning that needs to be done.”

A copy of the bill can be found at www.balancedcopyright.gc.ca.

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.