During July-Sept 2009, the Government of Canada held public copyright consultations, with an eye to writing new copyright law. They asked for submissions addressing five topics. Here’s one of my submissions, on “Copyright and you“. It’s hard to tell what will become of these consultations, because the government may fall (again) before Parliament gets a chance to pass a new bill. My submission may eventually show up on the official submissions page. Until then, here it is, for the record. I have two more submissions which I’ll dribble out in the coming days.
Q: How do Canada’s copyright laws affect you? How should existing laws be modernized?
A: This topic should not just be about copyright, it should also be about culture. I absorb culture, some of it through copyrighted works, some through public domain or non-copyrighted works. I also create works: essays, blog posts, musical performances, even submissions to government consultations. Thus I am *both* a producer and a consumer.
All culture is built by mixing and innovating based on previous culture. Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” was based on German folks tales written down a few centuries before.
The purpose of copyright is to strike a balance: to allow a limited right to prevent copying, in exchange for a larger social and cultural good. In today’s Canada, this balance has been greatly distorted, in favour of the publisher and the corporation, against the vast majority of artists, against the public, and against the culture. Digital technology, extra-long copyright terms, and aggressive policies by industry groups mean that publishers have greatly expanded their power to prevent copying. The public interest and the culture are harmed.
For instance, when I bought a book, I could read it whenever I wanted to, as many times as I wanted to. I could give it to someone else to enjoy. All this didn’t require copying, so copyright didn’t prevent it. And after only a few decades, the copyright limitations expired so it was part of the free culture, available for reuse.
When I buy an e-book, or a protected digital music file, the publishers and technology providers control how many times I can read the item. They can remove the item from my use, as Amazon withdrew an e-book from the Kindle. They can prevent me from giving the item to someone else. If the publisher or technology provider goes out of business, I may no longer be able to get access to what I bought. And even when the copyright expires, the technology may prevent access to what should be public domain.
Tools to understand and break technical copy protection and access control measures are vital to recovering the public culture’s access to cultural works, especially when the publisher or technology provider goes out of business or loses interest. Current laws threaten and restrict such tools. But they are a vital part of preserving the balance between private control and the public interest, the culture.
The imbalance between private control and public interest is driven by commercial entities that have a business model based on the pre-digital era of product and distribution of cultural works. They are seeing their business model erode, and they distort the balance in favour of their control over the public interest in order to slow the erosion of their business model. They respond with distortions, like longer copyright terms, technical access controls, and infringing my access to our shared culture.
Canada’s copyright laws have not adjusted to the implications of these changes. The laws should be modernised to restore the balance between private control and the public interest, between commercial advantage and our shared culture. Since the balance is distored heavily in favour of commercial advantage and private control now, the changes should be centred around increasing the public interest. Shortening copyright terms, opening a clear path for works to come into the public domain, guarding fair use, and ensuring public access despite technological controls are all important.
Postscript: I don’t pretend that these ideas are particularly original; I mine heavily the ideas of visionaries on the subject like Lawrence Lessig and Nina Paley. Nor do I pretend that I’m a particularly important exponent of them. The whole point of the consultation was to gather input from ordinary folk in Canada, and I do think that I am ordinary. I see my role as swelling the chorus which is voicing these ideas to the Canadian government.