Conservatives' copyright law changes could backfire

By now, even the most determinedly optimistic Conservative Party strategist has grudgingly accepted that their relentless efforts to turn Justin Trudeau's leadership into a Reefer Madness reboot has fizzled. But will a plan to exempt political parties from copyright law really help?

Does the government really want to trigger a debate over the use of political attack ads?

The Conservative government won't confirm it wants to exempt political ads from copyright laws, but it does say politicians should be 'held accountable' for what they say. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's pronouncements have been a frequent target. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

By now, even the most determinedly optimistic Conservative Party strategist has grudgingly accepted the fact that their relentless efforts to turn Justin Trudeau's leadership into a Reefer Madness reboot has fizzled.

Canadians — even those of the big-and-little C conservative persuasion — just don't seem to be buying into the theory that the sole priority of a Trudeau-led Liberal government would be to put a child's-eye-level marijuana display in every corner store.

Even the venerable Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto — no hotbed of wild-eyed weed evangelists — has just come out in favour of legalization, a move that prompted the Liberal Party to put out a press release "welcoming" the announcement and reiterating their support for "a well-regulated, legal system for marijuana access."

For the Liberal communications team, the CAMH news was likely one of the few bright spots to emerge during what has been widely, if unofficially, declared the worst week the party has experienced since Team Trudeau took centre stage. 

Coming out against the government's proposal to expand Canada's role in the ongoing ISIS conflict in Iraq was always going to be a controversial move for a party whose path to victory lies straight through the political centre.

CF-18 comments as ad fodder

Having their leader — who has already come under fire on more than one occasion over his seeming insouciance on foreign policy matters — launch the debate by making a joke about Canada "whipping out" its C-18s made it even harder to sell his party's position as a reasoned, responsible alternative plan. 

It's not hard to imagine the Conservative advertising department working overtime to come up with a new ad centred on a clip of Trudeau's now infamous comments.

If done right — and until Trudeau came along, that ad department had an excellent track record, at least as far as demolishing the credibility of Liberal leaders — a campaign focusing on Trudeau's most ungainly on-camera moments of late could at least start to make up for the time and money wasted in trying to depict him as Canada's new Prince of Pot.

But last spring, representatives from Canada's major broadcasters — CBC, Radio Canada, CTV, Rogers and Shaw, owner of Global — served notice to all political parties that they were seriously considering imposing a collective blackout on ads making use of their proprietary footage without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. 

Under that policy, if the Conservative Party can't strike a deal with one of the networks that happened to be filming Trudeau at the time, they would likely find the ad blocked from the airwaves. 

The quote would still be fair game, of course, and could be highlighted on screen, accompanied by ominous music or contemptuously toned voice-over.

The visual proof that he said it, however, would be effectively off limits.   

Copyright exemption plan could be high-risk

And that, in a nutshell, is why the government is reportedly planning to install a new backdoor in Canada's copyright laws that would give "political actors" — including parties — a free hand to make unfettered use of news footage, even against the express wishes of the copyright-holder.

Leaving aside the legal questions, the move to streamroll over certain intellectual property rights would carry its own political risk.   

If passed, every ill-considered answer given during a one-on-one interview and every pointed critique put forward by a pundit on a political panel would become fair game for future ads.

As Maclean's columnist Paul Wells noted last week, it could make reporters, hosts and anyone else not keen on the idea of making a cameo appearance in a future attack ad more likely to think twice about what they say, and show, on air.

It would also force the parties — particularly the Conservatives, who would rightly be seen as the primary proponents of such a scheme — to publicly defend "going negative" as a valid, even desirable aspect of modern Canadian democracy.

Make no mistake, there's little doubt that attack ads can work miracles, as far as influencing the electorate.

But by and large, most Canadians, including likely voters, profess to disapprove strongly of such tactics, which are viewed as an unwholesome, unwelcome import from south of the border.

Despite the government's preliminary efforts to frame it as a fight for freedom of speech, it's hard to see how it won't trigger a parallel debate over the legitimacy of the practice itself.   

Even if the Conservatives ultimately triumph in their battle against the broadcasters, as far as public opinion goes, they run the very real risk of losing the war.


Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.