Published Jan 24, 2011Bill C-32, the latest attempt to update Canada's creaky old Copyright Act, is currently under review by the Legislative Committee, having undergone two readings at the House of Commons. During this process, proponents and opponents to the bill as drafted have a chance to express their views to the committee, which will then prepare a report including any changes it thinks necessary back to the House. At that point, the bill will go to third reading. If it passes, it goes to the Senate, which then starts the process all over again. At this point, the likely scenario is that the current parliamentary term will end and the bill will go on, who knows, a permanent vacation.
When tabled last summer, Bill C-32 kicked up a ruckus with the music industry's battle lines being drawn primarily around the bill's digital locks provisions. The bill includes provisions that allow consumers to make backup copies of CDs that can bounce between one device and the next, but at the same time it would ban breaking digital locks imposed on media and devices. So if you happened to buy a CD with DRM/copy protection, it would be illegal to rip a copy to your iPod.
Detractors of Bill-C-32 argue that these clauses so fundamentally conflict as to warrant the bill's defeat. Consumer-side pundits have expressed disappointment that the federal government is following down the path of the much maligned Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a piece of U.S. legislation that critics argue has exposed consumers to punitive legal actions while doing very little to address ― let alone support ― the new commercial realities of the music business. For example, YouTube's entire business model is based on people posting music and images they may or may not own. The DMCA's so-called "safe harbour" provisions protect YouTube from being sued by, say, Warner when Warner alleges gazillions of videos are using unauthorized music. All YouTube has to do to shrug off a charge of copyright infringement is throw its customers under the bus. Meanwhile, some of the major labels have taken a pretty high-handed approach to claiming material as their own: a number of Canadian artists have had to fight to get music they own and control back up on the network after a major label had wrongly claimed it.
Critics are also concerned that the new bill will help to create a new breed of bottom-feeding copyright lawyers, as has been seen in the U.S,, with some labels hiring goons to send out blanket infringement letters saying "We know you've been file-sharing. Send us $1000 or we will sue the daylights out of you." No doubt many people pay up rather than risk a lengthy and expensive legal defence.
The other big deal for the music business is an item not included in Bill C-32: a extension of the private copying levy that would apply to iPods, mobile phones and other digital archive devices. The private copying levy has been around in Canada since 1997; it applies to "blank audio recording media" such as CDRs and cassettes. It was introduced as a way of compensating rights owners (like artists and labels) for revenues lost when people make copies of their music. Since the digital music explosion, the music industry has tried unsuccessfully to have the levy extended to MP3 players, hard drives and so on, arguing that these devices are also blank audio recording media. But they've been defeated every time, thanks to the efforts of consumer groups and device manufacturers who argue that the extra levy would push prices past consumer tolerance. After Bill C-32 was tabled and noise was made about the lack of private copying extensions, the federal government went out of its way to stage a "no iPod levy" media stunt, including hiring iPod loving youngsters to stomp around outside an Ottawa HMV.
If you are reading this sentence, it means you've stayed awake up to this point, god love ya, and you have earned the right to ask, "What does this have to do with me?" The answer is: everything. Or nothing. As an Exclaim! reader, you are probably a big consumer of music, and without judging I am going to guess that you get your music by all sorts of means. You probably buy the odd CD and pay for the odd download from iTunes, but when you find yourself with a sudden hankering for, say, some old timey DC hardcore, you may download Minor Threat from a P2P site, or rip a copy from a friend. Who doesn't do that, right? Everyone, even people in the music industry ― especially people in the music industry ― gets music via sub-legal means every day. The bill currently on the table goes some small way to recognizing this reality, in that it contains "personal use" exceptions that will allow you to legally move your legally acquired digital music files between devices. Illegal P2P sharing is off, but if you get caught downloading for personal use, the fines have a potential maximum of a piffling $5000 (down from $20,000).
If you are an artist, the bill affects you in that it does go some way to legalizing common acts like file copying, which means your fans can worry less, if they ever did, about sharing your latest record with their friends. But is it good enough that the bill allows people to make copies and share music for personal use? Shouldn't we be finding a way to license P2P transactions so that they can be making money for someone other than pirates?
At this point, the more important question about C-32 is not even "should," but "will any bill ever pass?" Hearings are due to recommence in February, but the longer the debate unfolds, the bigger the political football copyright reform becomes. Should we just ram the damn thing through and let the free market sort out the rest?