copyright in canada why our politicians should leave it alone

This week, I took a few minutes to read a nine-page “briefing note” published by the Canadian Library Association in response to the…

This week, I took a few minutes to read a nine-page “briefing note” published by the Canadian Library Association in response to the Harper government’s proposed legislation to amend the Canadian copyright act.

 That bill (Bill C61) mercifully died on the order paper with the calling of the present election; but the library association was well advised, I think, to publish its response to it nevertheless. They have done the public a valuable service in this small paper, encapsulating in clear, concise and rational language the issues that came to the fore in the controversy surrounding that bill.

(You can find the paper online at www.cla.ca/copyright/Unlocking the public interest-Final.pdf.)

The bill as proposed may be a thing of the past, but there is no doubt that some other version of it is likely to come up again on the to-do list of whatever party forms the next government.

That is why I was feeling distressed, of late, at how the issue of copyright reform, which had been a pretty noisy item, has been put to sleep by all the parties in the present election.

Having reviewed the CLA’s fine and fair-minded assessment of C61, however, and done a little research on the history of recent copyright reform history in Canada, I have come to the conclusion that this lack of attention might actually be a good thing. First of all, the issues around digital copyright are devilishly detailed, and not amenable to the kind of sound-bite position-posturing that is an inherent part of electioneering.

 Elections are about stirring up emotion, not about promoting clarity of thought — and clarity of thought is exactly what has been so desperately lacking in our recent approaches to copyright reform.

 Furthermore, none of the three major parties have any reason to bring up the question, because none of them have anything to say about it that is not just plain bone-headed.

The Harper government’s Bill C61 was an immoral sell-out to the big record and movie companies; an offence against reason and, probably, against the constitution itself.

The Liberal party criticized the bill and complained about the lack of consultation in its creation; but the fact is that their own proposed copyright bill (which also died on the oder paper in the election of 2005) was no less bone-headed and equally non-consultative.

The NDP, while it quite rightly faulted the Conservative bill for both its lack of balance and its lack of consultation, has been extremely unclear about what, if anything, it would do differently.

 Furthermore, they are in favour of the existing audio recording levy all Canadians pay on tapes and CD-R’s (supposedly to benefit publishers and artists who suffer loss of income from unauthorized copying on those media), and of expanding that levy to devices like MP3 players and even cellphones.

That is another thoroughly silly and unworkable idea whose time came and went long ago, and a one which even the Canadian Recording Industry Association opposes.

 (CRIA was once a very loud advocate for this levy, but has changed its tune very significantly of late, as it came to realize that the levy in effect would legalize unrestricted digital copying. If I have already paid the copying levy, why should I not be entitled to copy anything I want? If I am not allowed to make copies, what they heck am I being taxed for?)

What all of this indicates is that we have a generational incompetence problem in Canada, both in the House of Commons and in the federal bureaucracy — particularly within Heritage branch and Industry Canada, the two big players in copyright issues in this country.

These people simply don’t “get it.” The average age of a member of the House of Commons is 52 — too old to qualify as part of the “digital generation.”

I cannot find statistics on the average age of the senior bureaucrats within Heritage or Industry Canada, but it would seem reasonable that it would probably be about the same, if not older. Few of them — politician or plutocrat — live with technology with the same kind of comfort or understanding as, say, your average sub-35-year-old. (OK, I am a lot older than that, but I am an exception because I am a chronically immature computer nerd.)

They just don’t have the intellectual tools to imagine a digital world where old business models and methods of rewarding content providers are going to be vastly different from the ones they are familiar with — and which they try to protect with fumbling, inept pieces of legislation, like C61.

What the current generation of politicians and bureaucrats should do about copyright reform is what they have always done best: Nothing.

 Actively bad laws are worse than merely inadequate ones — and, as the Firearms Act showed all too clearly, expensive and hard to get rid of — so why break the jug just because it leaks a little?

 Let’s give it another 10 years or so, and let the technologies and the techno-generational issues sort themselves out.

 The American government may not like it, and the big music and movie companies may not like it, but that is their problem.

Our politicians and our bureaucrats are supposed to be serving our interests, not the interests of foreign governments or enterprises.

So, please, whoever comes out on top of this election: no more uninformed, old-fart, panic-button legislation like C61.