Canadian DMCA delayed, for now

According to from Michael Geist — who Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing loves to call “the copyfightin’ prof” — a proposed update to Canada’s copyright law that he and many others fear could be a carbon copy of the DMCA won’t be introduced until next year. In another post, Michael notes that the Facebook group he set up that is dedicated to voicing concerns about the copyright bill has now passed 20,000 members.

Below, I’ve posted a piece I wrote for the Globe that was published in the paper on Thursday, about the role that Facebook and blogs have played in the opposition to the proposed bill (which may have convinced the government to delay passage of the legislation). I also wrote a blog post recently on the same topic at my Globe blog.

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The federal government doesn’t seem to have too much time for what some call — Facebook, MySpace, blogs and so on. Access to many such sites is restricted in many government offices, presumably because they are seen as time-wasting devices for the office slacker. Will Ottawa’s view of such tools change now that they appear to have helped derail the proposed revisions to Canada’s copyright laws? It might, although it’s difficult to say how. The feds may begin to see these sites as deserving closer attention, or they may just dislike them even more now.

Although the government isn’t saying why the proposed copyright legislation didn’t show up for a vote in the House this week — as it was widely expected to — it seems more than a little coincidental that a storm of negative publicity reached its peak just before Industry Minister Jim Prentice pulled the bill. That storm came from many different areas, but all of them were powered to some extent by “social media.”

University of Ottawa law professor and copyright expert Michael Geist got the ball rolling with a number of blog posts on the topic, as well as a video that he uploaded to YouTube that described how people could voice their opposition to the bill. That in turn led to the formation of a Facebook group.

Many of those opposed to the legislation, including Prof. Geist and Canadian copyright lawyer Howard Knopf, believe the amendments would have turned the Canadian Copyright Act into a virtual copy of the U.S. law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (PDF). Although the DMCA has been hailed by content providers as a valuable tool for preventing piracy, critics argue it has also been used to dismantle much of what consumers have come to see as “fair use,” a principle that is enshrined in the common law of many countries, including Canada, and allows copyright infringement to occur for artistic or creative purposes.

In the United States, for example, various elements of the record industry have used the law to threaten consumers for using short snippets of music in their home videos. The industry’s lobby group, the Recording Industry Association of America or RIAA, also recently tried to argue that copying music from a compact disc on to a computer hard drive — something most people agree is “fair use,” is actually not permitted by the law.

One of the questions surrounding the Canadian bill was what would become of the Private Copying Levy, a fee that consumers pay when they buy music players, blank CDs and DVDs, which is then distributed to artists to compensate them for piracy. Rulings by the Copyright Board have suggested that this fee actually makes downloading copyrighted music legal in Canada.

Concerns about the future of that levy, as well as restrictions on copying content for creative purposes and the criminalization of any attempt to modify a device so as to allow copying — all features of the DMCA — was what sparked the Facebook and blog protests, Prof. Geist has said. And the suggestion that Canada might simply copy the U.S. law clearly hit a nerve. By the time the bill was pulled from the House, the Facebook group that Prof. Geist started had more than 10,000 members (Update: It now has more than 20,000), and others had also formed — including one that asked people to show up at the Industry Minister’s “open house” event last weekend in Calgary, where he was confronted by a small but vocal group of those opposed to the bill.

Will such incidents help Facebook and the blogosphere get some respect in Ottawa? That’s hard to say, but ignoring a medium that can generate more than 20,000 dissatisfied voters in a little over a week doesn’t seem like a great strategy, even for the government.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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