Copyright bill stirs debate about privacy, consumer rights

Disclaimer – Some day my comments are going to get me in trouble… Remember, once you are on the internet – you are there forever. This newspaper article contains comments of mine about Canada’s proposed copyright bill. Publication date was July 2008.


July 9, 2008 at 1:08 PM EST

If Canada’s new copyright bill becomes law, will the police be knocking on your door because your 16-year-old son copied the latest Pirates of the Caribbean DVD or downloaded the latest chart-topping single?

The answer will depend on whether the entertainment industry will turn a blind eye to all but the most serious offenders, or whether it will pounce on sections of the proposed law that deal with downloading music, copying CDs and DVDs, and recording TV shows.

“There are some really serious privacy issues that this legislation raises,” said Mira Sundara-Rajan, a professor of copyright law at the University of British Columbia.

The amendments to the Copyright Act tabled in June would allow record companies to sue people who download unauthorized songs for $500 – down from the previous level of $20,000 under an existing but never-enforced section of law. People who make songs available by uploading them would face penalties up to $20,000.

Another amendment would allow people to record television shows or movies for a short time only. They could be sued for building up a library of televised recordings.

The bill also contains new penalties for consumers who make copies of CDs, DVDs and other material by getting around digital locks that companies use to prevent duplication.

The question is, how will companies find out who is copying their products on a home computer? And how will they find out who is keeping recorded TV shows on their shelves for too long?

The government hints small-scale file-sharers and copiers need not fear a crackdown, because the main targets are people who sell bootlegged copies of movies or songs.

“The message the bill is designed to send is that private uses by consumers should not be the primary focus of enforcement activity,” said Albert Cloutier, director of the copyright and intellectual property directorate in Industry Canada.

“The use by the end user is usually … not particularly harmful. It’s when the end users become themselves distributors of the material that it starts to compete with the rights-holder’s market.”

Barry Sookman, a copyright lawyer with McCarthy Tetrault, says the small penalties laid out in the bill – especially compared to the United States, where six-figure lawsuits have been common – will act as a disincentive for companies to go after individuals who make personal copies.

“Can you imagine a Hollywood studio suing somebody, hiring a lawyer at $600 an hour, to go collect 12 bucks? There’s just no way that anyone would have any incentive whatsoever to do it,” Sookman said.

However, Sundara-Rajan warns the penalty would be up to $20,000 for someone copying a movie if they had to break a digital lock to do so. She also says technology may eventually make it easy for consumers to be snooped on.

“Are they going to be monitoring what you’re taping on your VCR? Will they be installing microchips in VCRs now?” she said.

The copyright bill has left a bad taste in the mouth of many consumers. The blogosphere has been flooded by people who feel they have the right to make backup copies of a CD or movie they have paid for.

“If you buy music from iTunes … and copy it to CD ‘cause you want to listen to it in your car, you’ve effectively removed the (digital locks) when you burned the CD, and suddenly you’ve got 12 tracks of infringement,” said Brad Trupp, a music fan and software developer in Winnipeg.

“And how many people are going to load a DVD to their iPod and suddenly have a $20,000 bill?”

Sundara-Rajan and Trupp both see the new legislation as something the industry can use to essentially force people to buy the same movie or song several times. If a CD or music download comes with digital locks (as most DVDs already do), people who want a backup copy for the car or cottage will need to purchase the item again.

But defenders of the bill say it strikes a balance between consumer rights and the idea of ensuring artists and companies are paid for their work.

“We’re not looking to punish offenders … we’re more about building new business models,” said Duncan McKie, president of the Canadian Independent Record Production Association.

The proposed law could help Canadian musicians sell more songs through official download sites, McKie said. Legal downloads in the United States totalled $1.2 billion last year, while in Canada, where unauthorized downloading is still flourishing, sales totalled $40 million.

“I think there are people … who might have downloaded in the past but who now might think twice and say, ‘Well, maybe we should buy it,”’ McKie said.

McKie, who says his organization has no intention of suing fans, admits the bill would not deter everyone from acquiring material illegally. It remains to be seen whether the technology used to catch copyright-breakers can keep up with the technology they are using.

In the U.S., England and other countries where anti-downloading laws have been passed, the distribution has become more decentralized and harder to track. Instead of unauthorized files travelling through a central server that can be shut down (think Napster circa 2000), users have turned to torrents, which allow thousands of people to simultaneously upload and download pieces of a song in a structure more akin to a spider web than a pipeline.

When British police raided and shut down an invitation-only music torrent site called Oink last year, three other sites popped up in Oink’s place within days.

So can the genie be put back in the bottle?

Not according to Trupp.

“If you shut down [torrent] sites in Canada [and] you shut them down in the States, you’ve still got everywhere else in the world,” he said.

“Stamp out? Never. People will find a way.”