Fighting for your (digi )rights

First of all, because I am going out on something of a controversial limb, here, let me make it clear who is doing the talking.

First of all, because I am going out on something of a controversial limb, here, let me make it clear who is doing the talking.

Though this column has long been “branded” with the logo of the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre, a program administered through Yukon College, the opinions that follow are not to be construed as representing of either of those entities.

For the purposes of Tech @ Work, this is just plain old Rick Steele talking, with no claim of representing anything other than his own computer-nerdy concerns and interests.

That said, let me move directly to the point: The federal government’s current Bill C61 (An Act to Amend the Copyright Act) is a cowardly, awe-inspiringly awful piece of legislation that poses a serious threat to the digital rights of Canadian citizens.

If you are in the arts or technology business, or even if you are just a casual computer user at home, you owe it to yourself to take a long, critical look at the implications of this legislation, and, I believe, to actively oppose it.

It is not my intention, in saying this, to indulge in political posturing or Tory-bashing.

The Conservative government’s current proposed legislation is truly appalling, but it is only slightly worse than the just-plain-dumb copyright legislation that died on the order paper during the previous Liberal government.

The bitter truth of the matter is that, at the moment, Canadians cannot trust any of the political parties to address the issue of copyright in the digital era, because all of them have made it very clear they have no understanding of the nature of this new world, and no interest in it.

The only sensible way of concocting a law on intellectual property rights in the digital age is to undertake a thorough consultation with consumers and creators of digital content, and to arrive at a reasoned consensus that will satisfy most (though, inevitably, not all) of the interested parties.

This is precisely what was not done under the last Liberal government, and precisely what has not been done by the present Conservative government.

Both parties just handed the problem over to a coterie of out-of-touch policy and legal wonks, who in turn essentially just cloned the USA’s execrable Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

There seems to have been a lot less attention paid to addressing Canada’s legal needs in this area than to mollifying the Americans by echoing their bad ideas.

That is what I mean when I call the current proposed legislation cowardly.

Now let me explain why I mean by calling it a threat to Canadian digital rights.

The issue is, needless to say, complex, but the key danger that needs to be focused on is on the provisions around respecting the digital rights management (DRM) methods put in place by content producers to prevent you from making unauthorized copies of their products.

Under the proposed legislation, any attempt to get around those measures — even if you are doing so for purposes of making domestic, not commercial copies — is, pure and simple, illegal and can cost you $20,000 in statutory damages.

While the law supposedly allows you, for personal use, to make copies of things — moving you new CD onto your iPod, for instance, or taping a TV show to view it later — it undermines that right by making the DRM rights of the producers trump your copying rights as a consumer.

There is no provision requiring the producers to make allowances for you to do reasonable copying.

Under the law as it stands, a record company could put some completely funky, ineffectual DRM software on its CDs blocking your ability to move it to your iPod.

If you decided that was an unreasonable and hacked your way around the DRM, you would be committing $20,000 worth of criminal activity.

The whole problem with the law as proposed, in fact, lies in its focus on protecting the interests of the big media operations — the record and film companies — at the expense of the rights of the consumer.

It is, in short, a sellout.

The shame in all of this is that Canada’s copyright laws really are in need of updating and clarification, and we are missing the boat.

I keep company with a good many people in the Yukon’s creative community — painters, photographers, musicians — so I am certainly sensitive to their need for protection of their intellectual property.

Also, my work at the Technology Innovation Centre also keeps me in contact with people who have pressing a legitimate concerns in this area.

But the fact of the matter is, the current proposed changes to the copyright act do nothing for these people at all.

The changes are drafted entirely for the benefit of the big media companies, and with nary a thought to the needs or interests of  the “little guy” as either consumer or producer of intellectual goods.

It is bad a, basely motivated piece of legislation. We should reject it, and keep rejecting such proposals until some government, someday, finally gets it right.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.