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Government consultations on copyright law could shape the rights Canadians have over the music, movies and media content they download.

Technology that brings music, movies and other content to a range of new devices improves Canadians' lives, and copyright laws must protect that kind of innovation and growth, say those speaking out on changes to Canada's copyright laws.

"That's why it becomes all the more important to set rules and also make it clear what uses are permitted so that there's no cloud hanging over these things," said Bernard Courtois, president of the Information Technology Association of Canada.

Digital locks and DRM

Digital rights management (DRM) is a catch-all term for a broad range of technologies used by copyright owners to control how a piece of data, software or hardware can be used by others. Some examples are encryption to prevent copying, measures that limit the number of times a music file can be burned to a CD, or coding that prevents DVDs from playing in certain regions of the world. Other types of digital locks may also be used to restrict the use of a certain cellphone to a certain wireless carrier.

Within days, government consultations that began July 20 — the first such consultations since 2001 — had already generated hundreds of comments on a public online forum, ranging from discussions about the concept of "fair use" to the role of digital locks that limit the use of consumer purchases ranging from cellphones to DVDs.

Courtois said things have changed a lot since the last consultation, a time when there was "considerable doubt" that money could be made off content sold on the internet.

"That is now clearly established — that there's a lot of money there for them down the line if we all work together and make sure that customers get value," he said, citing the recent availability of video, social networking, business and health-care applications that deliver content to a variety of platforms and devices.

"The fact that more and more Canadians are using these things means that they care a lot more about them.… They're finding it extremely convenient and they're saying, 'Don't take this away from me.'"

Not surprisingly, digital locks — software or firmware that restricts the use of music and movie files on different operating systems and devices in an effort to protect copyright and prevent illegal distribution — have been one of the most heated topics of discussion on the online consultation forum.

A controversial blanket ban on breaking such locks was included in Bill C-61, the previous copyright bill introduced without consultation by the Conservative government in 2008, which later died in the House when an election was called that fall.

Locks prevent piracy: ACTRA

Groups such as the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists say digital locks or digital rights management (DRM) are an "important issue in terms of preventing piracy."

'As rights holders, our members, of course, want to be compensated for the use of their material and that can't happen if people are ripping off music.'— Stephen Waddell, national executive director for ACTRA

"As rights holders, our members, of course, want to be compensated for the use of their material and that can't happen if people are ripping off music," said Stephen Waddell, national executive director for ACTRA. He added that ultimately, like many other groups, all ACTRA wants is a balance between consumer rights and the right of creators to be compensated for their work.

But consumers, including students and educators, argue that digital locks may skew that balance in favour of creators by interfering with many legal research and educational activities, including the ability to archive materials, change their file format, view files on different devices or lend them out from libraries, including materials in the public domain — a position held by the Canadian Federation of Students.

Frustration has also been expressed by users of the Linux operating system, who may need decryption software in order to view a DVD they have purchased if it includes a digital lock that only allows to be viewed in Windows, said Ian Ward, who is on the board of the Ottawa Canada Linux Users Group.

"People are upset that they would have to pay again to use something that they've already paid for," he said.

ITAC, whose members include creators of content such as software, agrees with ACTRA that a copyright law needs to make sure innovation isn't discouraged by a lack of protection from theft.

But Courtois said businesses also benefit when consumers can get value out of their purchase by being able to use it on multiple devices and platforms.

"Experience has shown — generation after generation — that the more value people get, the more the market will grow," he said, adding that online businesses want to make sure copyright law does not impede that.

Customers should also be able to tinker with locks on software and mobile devices to make sure they are compatible with other software or operate with multiple networks.

Lock-breaking ban could hurt research: ITAC

Bill C-61's proposed restrictions on breaking digital locks would have hurt innovation in other ways, Courtois said. 

Canada has a strong cryptography and security services industry, he said, but its research would have been hampered by a requirement to seek permission from the rights holder before breaking digital locks — something that type of research doesn't lend itself to. He favours letting researchers prove they were doing research after the fact if a rights holder complains.

'I think there's a real battle taking place about the future shape of the knowledge economy or whether or not we're going to have equitable access or whether it's going to be on a pay-per basis, where [those] who can afford to can access the information … and those who can't will be left out.'—David Robinson, Canadian Association of University Teachers

David Robinson, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said his group is also concerned that a ban on breaking digital locks would hurt research and education.

"There's all kinds of ways, I think, in which a

more restrictive copyright framework could actually hinder the kind of innovation that we're trying to stimulate," he said, citing the mixing and re-mastering that many musical artists are now engaged in, as well as new business models they are developing that involve free content.

All this is especially important given that virtually every politician has been trumpeting the emergence of a knowledge-based economy, Robinson said.

"I think there's a real battle taking place about the future shape of the knowledge economy or whether or not we're going to have equitable access or whether it's going to be on a pay-per basis, where [those] who can afford to can access the information … and those who can't will be left out."

University of Ottawa law Prof. Michael Geist said the past decade has proven that DRM has been "largely a failure." It has found little consumer acceptance and done little to discourage file sharing in the U.S., where there is a longstanding ban on breaking all digital locks, he said.

No legal requirement for ban: prof

On his blog, Geist argued against a similar ban in Canada, saying there are many legitimate reasons to circumvent a digital lock and there is no international legal requirement to institute such a ban. The blog entry is posted on the new website he launched Thursday called Speakoutoncopyright.ca to encourage public participation in the government copyright consultations.

Ultimately, Courtois said, striking the right balance is not a question of looking at a ban and exceptions. He advocates a different approach.

"You establish the general principle that you can't steal," he said. "Then you look at what rights you have to give to consumers so they get the real value that they've paid for."