The special legislative committee studying the government's copyright reform bill began hearing from witnesses on Monday.

The committee on Bill C-11, chaired by NDP MP Glenn Thibeault, met for about three hours and heard from academic and legal experts, two arts groups and the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC).

Hearings continue on Tuesday and Wednesday with more witnesses from film, arts and music industry associations, and from other interested parties including the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.

The committee is spending the next several weeks studying the controversial bill.

The copyright modernization act was first introduced in September and then came to a vote at second reading earlier this month, after the government limited debate on it with a time allocation motion.

The same bill was introduced by the Conservatives in the last Parliament, but it died when last May's election was triggered. Bill C-32 was also sent to a special legislative committee for study and it heard from about 75 witnesses.

MPs and interested stakeholders agree that Canada's copyright laws need to be updated, but there is no consensus on how best to do that.

There are provisions in the legislation, such as those related to digital locks, that some stakeholders aren't satisfied with and are hoping can be amended at the committee stage.

The bill would make it illegal to circumvent digital locks designed to prevent content from being copied, a measure designed to protect creators. But some groups say the digital lock provisions will prevent people from legally using material under fair dealing rules in copyright law.

On Monday, lawyer James Gannon defended the use of digital locks, telling the committee they are "vital" for certain business models, including the sale and rental of movies online and for online music subscription services.

The term digital locks shouldn't even be used,Gannon said, and they should not be thought of as restrictive measures designed to frustrate consumers. Digital locks should always be referred to as technological protection measures (TPMs), he said.

Blind Canadians concerned

A group representing blind Canadians said the copyright reform bill is of great importance to them and noted that less than 10 per cent of printed material is available in an accessible format.

Marc Workman, national director of the AEBC, said access to material should not be based on exemptions for blind people in legislation, but instead on a commitment on the part of copyright holders to make accessible formats in the first place.

Bill C-11 does contain an exemption that would allow for digital locks to be broken by blind people, and Workman said while that exemption is supported, most blind people don't have the technological expertise to do it.

"Breaking the digital lock on copyrighted works is almost certain to be beyond the means of the average blind Canadian," he said.

Circumventing TPMs places a burden on organizations that produce alternative formats of material for blind Canadians, Workman added. His group urged MPs to accept a series of recommendations on how to amend the bill to better balance the needs of blind Canadians.

Professional photographers also appeared at the committee Monday to express their support for C-11. They said it corrects an "outdated and discriminatory view of photography" that is contained in the existing law.

But they also expressed some concerns about the way C-11 is drafted, particularly some of its terminology, and submitted technical amendments they said the MPs should consider.

The government has said it is open to making technical amendments, which could tweak the language in the bill and produce other minor changes, but there will be calls for the government to go further in changing the bill.

The Conservatives, however, have said they believe the bill currently balances the interests of artists and consumers.