Quebec and Copyright

Today's Le Devoir features a noteworthy op-ed on copyright from many of Quebec's leading publishers.  The gist of the op-ed is that copyright is crucial to Quebec culture, the educational exception proposed by Canadian Ministers of Education would have a devastating effect on that culture, and the Conservatives seem ready to support the education exception without any public debate. 

Given the transparent efforts of the minority Conservatives to court the Quebec vote – this week alone Industry Minister Bernier gave two speeches in Montreal on economic development and the environment, while Heritage Minister Bev Oda opened an OAS conference on culture – it is worth considering how copyright reform will play in Quebec. 

The working assumption is generally that culture is major issue in Quebec, that copyright is viewed as an integral part of cultural policy, and that therefore stronger copyright laws are an election winner in the province.  Yet if the rumours about the contents of the forthcoming copyright bill are accurate, the Conservatives are about to fundamentally misread where the support for copyright reform lies.  The bill is likely to contain two pillars – anti-circumvention legislation and the education exception (there will obviously be other provisions but these are the two issues designed to address the loudest lobby groups, namely CRIA and CMEC).  Both issues are losers in Quebec.

Anti-circumvention legislation is primarily promoted by the movie and music industries. The movie industry's lobbyist – the CMPDA – is forthcoming in noting that it represents U.S. studio interests.  CRIA is less transparent about its support, yet the following exchange between CRIA President Graham Henderson and Commissioner Arpin at the CRTC earlier this year highlights CRIA's relationship with Quebec:

MR. HENDERSON: I think the situation in Quebec is measurably different.


MR. HENDERSON: I looked at the Commission's Public Notice in effect as a call to arms to English Canada, because the development of new and emerging talent in Quebec is substantial, significant, noticeable, measurable, everything, and we had not done that. So I feel that all of us on this side.

COMMISSIONER ARPIN: But your members' companies are trying to promote Canadian emerging and new artists all across the country.


COMMISSIONER ARPIN: Not only in nine of the provinces and three of the territories.

MR. HENDERSON: Our members? Well, in fact, in Quebec our members have very little involvement."

In fact, at the Future of Music Conference held in Montreal last month, it was readily apparent that the Quebec music scene is thriving with little desire for the use of DRM among its artists.  Moreover, Quebec was recently home to a Sony rootkit class action settlement and we should not forget that France has been a hotbed of grassroots criticism against the interoperability problems created by the combination of DRM and anti-circumvention legislation.  While the Quebec based collectives will undoubtedly support anti-circumvention legislation, this can hardly be counted as their issue (indeed, many collectives are troubled by CRIA's increasingly vocal opposition to the private copying levy).

The education exception issue is also a loser in Quebec.  Its Ministry of Education has never supported the change and now its publishing industry has vocally come out against it as well.  Throw in the opposition from a growing number of education groups and this issue is likely to cause the Conservatives considerable grief.

If a copyright bill is introduced along these lines, there is every reason to believe that all three opposition parties will oppose it.  The NDP will clearly oppose as they've moved strongly into recognizing the need for balance and have been critical of Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda.  The Liberals will be able to use the U.S.-style anti-circumvention legislation to argue that they proposed a more balanced approach under C-60 and thereby curry favour with the many groups seeking balance by opposing and offering a real alternative.  Meanwhile, the Bloc may also oppose the bill based on the education provisions that it will view as harmful to Quebec culture.  The result will be a mess, much like the Liberals faced last fall when it learned that C-60 was facing significant opposition from broadcasters, education, and the general public.

The way out of this mess?  Dropping the education exception but pushing forward with the copyright bill would force the Conservatives to backtrack on a core plank in their copyright policy and would alienate support from the nine other provinces.  Rather, the Le Devoir op-ed points in the right direction by noting that the government has not consulted on the education issue.  Instead of hurriedly introducing a bill that will leave everyone unhappy, the Conservatives would do far better to launch a consultation or commission (as Howard Knopf suggested this week) on copyright.  There may be value in looking decisive, but facing criticism from all three opposition parties in committee, in the House of Commons, and in the media will do little to help the Conservatives chances at a majority government.