My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) examines the restrictions on using political clips, such as debates from the House of Commons, for non-commercial purposes. A recent incident in the U.S. involving Nancy Pelosi sparked considerable discussion about whether it was appropriate for any private broadcaster to maintain copyright control over the public discussion and debates of elected officials. It is a debate that I argue is sorely needed in Canada given the current restrictive framework and the proliferation of political parody and criticism videos that regularly appear on video sharing sites such as YouTube.
In the U.S., C-Span now permits non-commercial copying, sharing, and posting of its video on the Internet, with attribution. More recently, similar questions have been raised in the U.S. about the permission needed to copy, share, and post video stemming from Presidential debates. Several Presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Christopher Dodd, have called on the U.S. television networks to make debate footage freely available for non-commercial uses. Last week, CNN became the first broadcaster to do so.
While the U.S. appears to be moving rapidly toward facilitating this emerging form of political speech, Canadians face more onerous restrictions.
The Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC) is the primary source for Canadian Parliamentary debate and discussions, including the House of Commons Question Period and Committee hearings. CPAC broadcasts hours of Parliamentary hearings each week, yet unlike C-Span, it does not assert copyright over the broadcasts. Instead, the broadcaster maintains that copyright in the House of Commons Proceedings rests with the Speaker of the House, while the Senate of Canada owns the copyright in the Senate Proceedings.
The Speaker of the House grants permission to use recordings in schools and for fair dealing purposes (private study, research, criticism, and news reporting). Moreover, broadcasters licensed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission are permitted to use excerpts of proceedings in their news reports. Any other usage – including parody or reposting of content by bloggers, webcasters and non-CRTC licensed entities – requires the "express prior written approval of the Speaker of the House of Commons."
The Senate has similar rules for using its footage. Fair dealing can be used justify certain limited uses without permission, however the Senate adopts the position that it owns the copyright in all its audio and video. It receives occasional requests from the public to reproduce proceedings that are reviewed on a "case by case basis."
As some U.S. broadcasters have grown to appreciate, the ability to use clips of elected officials engaged in governmental activities should not require permission. Under the current system, Canadians are forced to justify their use of video and face the prospect that those requests may be denied. For example, someone seeking to create a parody video of the Speaker of the House must obtain the permission from the very subject of the parody.
With the growing emphasis on greater government accountability and transparency, as well as the proliferation of technologies that enable the creation of videos that can disseminated to a global Internet audience, Canada would do well to follow the U.S. lead by removing the requirement to obtain permission before engaging in these new forms of political speech.