Copyright debate turns ugly

Heritage Minister James Moore has stirred a hornet's nest by saying that opponents of his proposed copyright reform bill are "radical extremists."

Heritage minister stirs hornet's nest with 'radical extremist' comments

Blayne Haggart doesn't consider himself a "radical extremist," which is why he's chafing at possibly being labelled as such by Heritage Minister James Moore.

The 37-year-old Ottawa native thinks there are many positives in Bill C-32, the copyright reform legislation unveiled by Moore and Industry Minister Tony Clement earlier this month. But he says it also has a key flaw — it would make the breaking of any digital lock illegal, which could trump all the other positive provisions.

On his Orangespace blog, Haggart wrote that he doesn't believe the government's rationale for stronger copyright protection in general and the digital lock provision specifically — that they are essential to creative production — is supported by much evidence. He hopes that Bill C-32 can be modified and fixed when the parliamentary process begins in the fall.

Voicing such concerns, though, may brand him a radical extremist under Moore's definition. 

"The only people who are opposed to this legislation are really two groups of radical extremists," Moore said at a meeting of the International Chamber of Commerce in Toronto on Tuesday. "There are those that pretend to be for copyright reform, but they don't believe in actual copyright reform. There are those that are cited as experts by the media endlessly who are not in favour of copyright reform."

The minister's comments were also interpreted by observers as taking aim at his chief critic, University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist. Although he didn't specifically reference Geist by name, Moore criticized "people who pretend to be experts on copyright reform" who are "endlessly cited by the media."

"Those absolutists out there, who are babyish in their approach to copyright legislation, who think that any idea of copyright reform will be an attack on individual citizens ... [we must] make sure that those voices who try to find technical, non-sensical, fear-mongering reasons to oppose copyright reform are confronted every step of the way and they are defeated," Moore said.

Haggart, who is just finishing his PhD in regional governance and copyright issues at Carleton University in Ottawa, said the minister's comments were misleading and out of line.

"Michael Geist is no radical. I go to university, I know radicals. They're in my class. [Geist] proposes specific alternatives. He has never said, 'Let's scrap copyright.' He is not a radical by any stretch of the imagination," Haggart said. "Criticizing people or trying to characterize their position as something without actually engaging in the substance of what the people are saying is just not constructive or helpful."

Comments were 'unseemly'

Laura Murray, an English professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and author of Canadian Copyright: A Citizen's Guide, was alarmed by Moore's comments. She works with archivists, librarians, artists and teachers, many of whom have problems with parts of Bill C-32 — especially the digital locks, which would make it illegal to make copies of CDs, DVDs or any other media if its producer chose to include them.

"These are not people I'd call extremists. It was almost amusing except that the tone is so combative. That's unseemly for a minister," she said. "The bill is out there to be debated. To say it's all or nothing like that is very much against the spirit and process I understand for debating bills."

Murray, who presented a submission to the government during 2009's cross-country copyright consultations, says she was especially discouraged by Moore's characterization of Bill C-32's criticisms, particularly over the the digital locks provision, as fear-mongering.

"Putting [locks] on a pedestal and giving them all the power really overwhelms everything else they've done," she says. "The way they've treated [digital rights management] gives it too much power for anyone to say there's balance."

In subsequent correspondence over Twitter, Moore said his comments were aimed only at those people who don't want copyright laws at all.

"The point I was trying to make is that those who don't believe in any copyright are, of course, extreme. We're open to ideas, as demonstrated by our consultations. And we welcome amendments that strengthen the bill," he said. "But those who don't believe in any copyright need to [be] debated and proven wrong."

On his blog, Geist countered and said Moore's comments were obviously directed at the "thousands of other Canadians who have argued for fair copyright" during the consultations. Geist also denied that he is in favour of abolishing copyright and pointed to a list of his suggested amendments to Bill C-32.

Consumer group unhappy

Michael Janigan, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), an Ottawa-based consumer watchdog that opposes the bill mainly because of the digital locks clause, was also disheartened by Moore's comments.

"He has morphed from a personable, PR-savvy techno-nerd minister to a young Richard Nixon [with an enemies list]," he said. "I'm very surprised at efforts to demonize opponents at a fairly early stage in discussion about the bill. I don't think that's helpful at all."

PIAC, along with several other consumer groups, wrote to the minister last week to express their dissatisfaction with his recent assertion that consumers support Bill C-32. Moore has not yet replied to the letter, Janigan said.

Last week, Moore also said the legislation had broad support from a range of stakeholders, including the entertainment industry, provincial ministers, small businesses and students.

Tina Robichaud, chairperson of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, said that while her organization was pleased with Bill C-32's expansion of fair dealing, which will allow limited copyright infringement for the purposes of education and research, it has concerns with the lock provisions. Robichaud is "absolutely" concerned that the locks could trump the fair dealing expansion that the students fought for.

The Retail Council of Canada is also concerned with the locks clause. While the government's rejection of calls to adopt a new copying tax on devices such as iPods and laptops pleased retailers, the provision for locks remains a major issue.

"We are, overall, very happy with the government's decision to not extend the blank media levy. The copyright bill strikes a good balance. Are there ways it can be improved? Of course there are," said Terrance Oakley, vice-president of federal government relations for the retail council. "Digital locks shouldn't get in the way of consumers using their fair-use provisions."

He said retailers will be bringing that concern up when they appear before the copyright parliamentary committee in the fall.

"Being supportive of the bill doesn't mean we support every clause," Oakley said.


Peter Nowak


Peter Nowak is a Toronto-based technology reporter and author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.