Indie video game maker slams copyright bill

Independent video game maker BattleGoat Studios has broken ranks with the larger industry by slamming the federal government's proposed copyright reform legislation as anti-consumer and anti-creator.

Independent video game maker BattleGoat Studios has broken ranks with the larger industry by slamming the federal government's proposed copyright reform legislation as anti-consumer and anti-creator.

Bill C-32 — introduced in June by Industry Minister Tony Clement and Heritage Minister James Moore at the Electronic Arts video game studio in Montreal — is "inherently flawed and unbalanced" because of a provision that would make it illegal for a person to break any technological lock put on a device or piece of electronic content, the company said.

"In recent comments the Minister of Heritage has said that the bill strikes a balance and 'everyone got some water in their wine.' However, [it is] is more like arsenic in the wine," wrote BattleGoat co-founder and co-owner George Geczy in a letter last week. "It destroys the progressive elements of the bill by invalidating them, and without changes this … makes the bill unacceptable and entirely unbalanced."

For video game makers, the locks — also known as technological protection measures or digital rights management — are a problem because it limits their ability to innovate and build off prior art, Geczy said. C-32 would make it illegal to break locks put on products created by companies that have since gone bankrupt, or on products that have seen their copyright expire, a fact that could also have big cultural implications.

"While nobody would question the cultural significance and imperative for preservation of a Shakespeare play or Beethoven symphony, cultural media in the past decades has suffered significant content losses when commercial entities do not see a financial benefit in preservation," Geczy wrote.

He cited television shows such as Dr. Who and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson as examples of cultural works whose early episodes were lost because creators chose not to preserve them.

Legally protected locks could contribute to the same cultural-loss effect, he added.

Geczy said C-32 could be fixed with one simple amendment — that consumers should be allowed to break digital locks if it is for non-infringing purposes, such as making a backup copy. While the law should rightly go after large-scale commercial counterfeiters, individuals shouldn't be punished for small-scale infringement, he said.

"We have a strong dislike of any file-sharing systems that are out there for profit, and we get our content taken down when we see them. I'm no fan of those," Geczy said in an interview. "But if a guy makes a copy for his friend, we're not necessarily a fan of that, but we're not going to go out and sue for that. It's non-commercial and it's not going to affect the big picture at the end of the day."

BattleGoat, based in Ancaster, Ont., near Hamilton, in 2008 released Supreme Ruler 2010 and Supreme Ruler 2020, two military strategy games for the PC.

Geczy said he sent the letter to Clement and Moore, as well his local MP David Sweet, the Conservative representative for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which has stated its support for C-32.

Larger industry disagrees

The small company's position is at odds with the larger video game industry, represented by its lobby group, the Entertainment Software Association of Canada. Larger video game makers are generally in favour of strong content locks, which they say deter piracy.

"The proposed bill doesn't obligate anyone to use technological protection measures — it simply gives creators the right to protect their work from theft if they choose," said Julien Lavoie, a spokesperson for the Entertainment Software Association. "There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and every business, large or small, can make the choice that they believe is best for them."

In his letter, Geczy criticized the association for its support of C-32 and the digital lock provisions. He said the ESAC, which counts the biggest video game companies in the world as its members — including Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft — does not speak for independent Canadian studios.

Lavoie said it was irresponsible to disregard the value of investment in Canada by foreign companies, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and have created thousands of jobs here. The big companies also contract many smaller Canadian developers and middleware providers.

"To infer that non-member independent video game developers don't want legal protections for their copyrighted works is false," Lavoie said.

Denis Dyack, president of Silicon Knights — an independent game developer in St. Catharines, Ont. — said that while he sympathizes with BattleGoat's positions, his company supports C-32's lock provisions.

'Copyright in Canada … needs enforcing'

"Copyright in Canada is pretty weak and it needs enforcing. Though there might be flaws in the current act, we need to move forward. If we do not find ways to protect our intellectual property, our economy is going to become weaker and weaker," Dyack said.

"If we don't have something with some backbone in it — [and instead have] something saying that it's okay to break these locks — then you're saying it's okay to pirate. That's a problem."

C-32 has been hotly debated since its introduction in early June. The bill is the Conservative government's second attempt to update Canada's copyright laws, which have remained largely unchanged since before the advent of digital media. The government's previous attempt in 2008 met with harsh criticism, much of which was also directed at its similar digital locks provision. That bill, C-61, died when Parliament was prorogued that year.

The new bill has received praise for introducing new rights and enshrining in law certain behaviours that Canadians have come to accept as ordinary, such as recording television shows on a PVR.

Moore recently stirred the controversy further by referring to critics of C-32 as "radical extremists." The minister has defended legal protections for digital locks as a necessary tool for creators to protect their works from piracy, and has said the clause is necessary to bring Canada in line with its World Intellectual Property Organization obligations.

On Tuesday, NDP copyright critic Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins-James Bay, said neither claim was true. WIPO gives signatory countries "enormous latitude" for determining the limitations on digital locks.

"Either the government has a faulty understanding of international treaty obligations or is looking to use these existing treaties as a cover to pursue a specific political agenda," Angus said in a statement.