A who's who of powerful companies and business associations have banded together to push for less restrictive copyright reform, driving a stake into the heart of the federal government's argument for its new copyright bill.
The Business Coalition for Balanced Copyright, a group that includes Google, Yahoo, Rogers, Telus, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters and the Retail Council of Canada, among others, on Tuesday sent its stance on seven key copyright principles to Industry Minister Jim Prentice, Canadian Heritage Minister Josée Verner and several other cabinet ministers.
According to the document obtained by CBCNews.ca, the coalition wants any new copyright legislation to include measures that enshrine the rights of consumers to use in different ways the copyrighted material they buy, as well as companies in their daily business practices.
The group also said internet service providers should not be held liable for copyright violations that occur on their networks, and that Canada should put into place measures that prevent the highly punitive lawsuits seen in the United States.
"We're looking for a balanced approach between the rights of the users and the rights of the copyright holders," said Pam Dinsmore, vice-president of regulatory affairs for Rogers. "Our concern would be that the government would err too much on the side of the copyright holders."
Google's Canada policy counsel Jacob Glick said harsh copyright rules would limit innovation on the internet by preventing users from engaging in acts such as parody, or making the mash-up videos that have become popular on its YouTube website.
"Canada's current approach to fair dealing ossifies the tiny and exhaustive list of exceptions to copyright and as such stifles cultural and technological innovation," Glick wrote on Google's public policy blog. "Flexible exceptions and limitations, which encourage creativity and innovation, are integral to balanced copyright law."
The coalition joins a long list of individuals and concerned parties opposed to the proposed legislation, including teachers, librarians, musicians, privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, and more than 40,000 members of a Facebook group devoted to the issue.
The proposed bill has not been made public yet, but Prentice's silence on its contents and a lack of public consultation have led many to believe the new law will mirror the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed in the United States in 1998. Critics say the U.S. rules have been overly restrictive, haven't curbed copyright violations and have spawned a wave of excessive lawsuits, such as the one in which a Minnesota woman was ordered to pay $222,000 U.S. last year for sharing music online.
Prentice was to introduce the bill in December but shelved it after the public voiced its opposition. He promised to revisit it early this year.
Critics on Wednesday said the coalition's stance undermines one of Prentice's key arguments in favour of the bill — that the business community has been demanding reforms.
"Those claims have now been completely undermined," wrote University of Ottawa internet law professor Michael Geist on his blog. "With such an impressive list of backers, the Industry Minister must now surely recognize that his proposed bill is opposed by the very industries that he has promised to support."
The coalition wants the following in any new copyright legislation:
- Expanded "fair dealing" provisions for users, which give a "large and liberal" interpretation of how consumers can use the copyrighted material they buy. The Copyright Act needs to be amended to accommodate long-standing and accepted uses, such as the copying of a song from one format to another — for example, from a CD to a computer — or the recording of a television program for later viewing, they say. A number of Canada's major trading partners already allow such uses.
- A clause that prevents copyright owners from going after people or companies who circumvent for non-commercial reasons the technological protection measures placed on content. A record label, for example, should not be able to sue a consumer who gets around copy-protection measures in order to transfer a song to an iPod.
- No surcharges on downloadable content. Copyright owners have been pushing for downloads to be considered as "communications to the public," and say they should therefore be subject to an additional fee. The coalition believes such a charge would unfairly double the delivery cost of online music, films, games and other software.
- A scrapping of the surcharge on recordable media, including CDs and MP3 players. The surcharge was originally introduced to compensate artists for revenue they were losing through illegal downloads, which were ending up on the recordable media. But with the proliferation of legal online stores, artists are being compensated for many downloads. The government should therefore consider getting rid of the tax or scaling it back, the coalition says.
- An exemption for violating copyright as part of legitimate business practices, such as when a broadcaster copies a show for its archives.
- No liability for internet service providers for the actions of their users.
- A limit on the damages that can be awarded to copyright holders in lawsuits against those infringing on their copyrights.
Prentice has also been criticized for listening to lobby groups, particularly in the United States, who want Canada to back up the World Intellectual Property Organization treaty it signed in 1996 with strong laws. The U.S.-based International Intellectual Property Alliance this week asked U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab to put Canada on its priority watch list, alongside Russia and China, because they say Canada is a top violator of U.S. copyrights.
The parties that make up the coalition, which does want to see copyright reform — but with fewer restrictions — first began talking in December, when they realized they weren't going to be consulted, they said.
"With the lack of consultations, [we decided] we should come together and build a common position," said Kim Furlong, vice-president of government relations for the Retail Council of Canada. "The ministers will now have something to look back on to see this is where the business community stands."
Furlong said the coalition signatories — which also include the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, a division of CATAlliance, the Canadian Cable Systems Alliance, the Canadian Wireless and Telecommunications Association, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, Third Brigade, Tucows, Cogeco Cable, EastLink, MTS Allstream and SaskTel — hold the seven principles in varying levels of priority. The issues of fair dealing and media copying are of particular concern to the Retail Council, she said.
Telecommunications providers such as Rogers, on the other hand, are more concerned about being held liable for what their customers use the internet for, or for how services such as music downloads on cellphones are taxed, Rogers' Dinsmore said.
A spokesperson for Prentice could not be immediately reached for comment.
Furlong said it is unlikely the proposed legislation will be introduced in Parliament before the federal budget is tabled on Feb. 26. The Conservatives wouldn't want the bill to die on the order paper, which could happen if the budget forces an election, and are therefore likely to hold off until afterward, she said.
"That would be wise," she said.
The Business Coalition for Balanced Copyright includes the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, not the Canadian Alliance of Broadcasters as originally reported.Feb 19, 2008 10:48 AM ET