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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2008

Copyright Reform Shifts to New Ground

Long-expected amendments to the Copyright Act aimed at bolstering the rights of the entertainment industry have been dropped from the federal government’s legislative agenda. The development is a major victory for universities and colleges and the broader public.

If enacted, the copyright reforms would have severely restricted the use of digital information technology to create and exchange information, said Sam Trosow, CAUT visiting scholar, University of Western Ontario law professor and coauthor of Canadian Copyright: A Citizen’s Guide.

“The public interest is served by copyright law that balances the needs of creators, users and owners of copyright works,” Trosow said. “The government was set to tilt the Act further towards the movie, music and publishing industries, but that plan is dead for now.”

At issue were rumoured provisions modelled on the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act that would have hindered transferring digital files from one format to another and allowed corporate rights-holders to remove material from Canadians’ web sites on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations of copyright infringement.

Despite a strong outcry against the Canadian copyright reforms, the government’s abrupt about-face still came as a surprise. In the past, the publishing and entertainment industries have essentially dictated the content of the Canadian bill with little effective intervention from other sectors in society.

Today, with users engaging with copyright issues through everyday activities such as file-sharing, time-shifting television playback, and reformatting digital works to play on multiple devices, politicians have had to pay heed to a wider array of voices.

Advocacy groups watching over copyright say a key factor in the government’s retreat was University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist’s Facebook group, “Fair Copyright for Canada,” that has amassed more than 40,000 members. The social networking page has become a newswire on lobbying, a mouthpiece for nearly 200 discussion topics and a planning space for demonstrations across the country.

Education and library organizations such as CAUT, the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Canadian Federation of Students and the Canadian Library Association played a role as well, adopting a more aggressive stance in bringing the concerns of their constituents to parliamentarians.

“The withdrawal of the legislation is a huge victory for the Canadian public, but it’s a defensive one,” said Laura Murray, a Queen’s University English professor and coauthor with Trosow of Canadian Copyright. “We stopped bad law. Now we need to create good law.”

Murray said the current strategy is to press Parliament for, among other things, amendments that strengthen the definition of “fair dealing,” the right to use works without permission in certain circumstances.

In addition to political advocacy, Murray also urges academic staff to educate themselves on their rights under the Copyright Act and use them to their full extent.

“The content of the law is not simply determined by the black letter of statute,” Murray warned. “Our everyday practices and procedures in the use of copyright works play an important role in how courts determine what copyright actually is. If we are pusillanimous in our actions, then we are inviting courts to restrict our rights.”