Copyright law changes could leave consumers vulnerable

Changes to copyright laws expected as early as next month, could alter the way Canadians listen to music or tape their television programs — unless the Conservative government expands "fair use" protections for consumers.

Ever recorded a television show or a movie so you can watch it later? Or ripped a CD so you can listen to it on your MP3 player?

With changes to Canada's copyright laws expected as early as next month, these mundane 21st century activities could theoretically be open to prosecution — unless the Conservative government steps in with expanded "fair use" or "fair dealing" protections for consumers.

Close observers of the file say all signs point to a new regime that will improve safeguards for major music, film and media companies and artists for unpaid use of their material, but neglect to make exemptions for personal use of copyrighted content.

'About as market interventionist as you can get'

"We're dealing with an industry minister [Maxime Bernier] that's tried to extricate government from the telecom area with a very strong deregulatory focus," said Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa.

"Yet the kind of copyright reform that is being contemplated is about as market interventionist as you can get."

Amendments to the Copyright Act are fraught with problems, since there are so many players with contradictory views.

Exacerbating the situation is intense pressure from the United States, where Canada is considered a rogue when it comes to copyright and intellectual property. It still hasn't ratified a 1997 World Intellectual Property Organization copyright treaty.

Sources say the new legislation is ready, but Bernier and Heritage Minister Bev Oda are struggling on final wording. Two of the most controversial issues are called digital rights management and the closely related technological protection measures.

'People just assume it's free'

Graham Henderson of the Canadian Recording Industry Association, one of Canada's top lobbyists for stiffer copyright controls, notes that a variety of digital services have taken off in the United States and started to make up a large percentage of music revenues.

"In Canada, that's not happening and it's not happening because we have a culture here where people just assume it's free," said Henderson.

"It's a big black market effect and so instead of 25 per cent [of the market], it's eight per cent here. People are simply abandoning the marketplace altogether, and they've made the decision they'll just download the music and worry about how the artist gets paid later."

Exemptions for consumers urged

But what does this mean for the consumer who legitimately buys a song or a film, and wants to use it on several different devices?

Consumer advocates, such as Ottawa-based lawyer Howard Knopf, are urging the government to protect Canadians with wide exemptions in the Copyright Act for "fair use."

As well, a group of Canadian musicians, including the Barenaked Ladies and Broken Social Scene, have come out against the technological protection measures, arguing they actually stifle creativity and their relationship with consumers.