The Canadian Thanksgiving weekend featured escalating rhetoric over the government’s proposed copyright exception for political advertising with claims of fascism, censorship, expropriation, and more. The commentary bears almost no relationship to reality. The truth is that the government and the broadcasters both agree that the current law already permits use without authorization. For all the claims of “theft”, the copyright owner (broadcasters) and user (political parties) both agree that the works can be used without further permission or payment. As Ariel Katz points out this morning, the bigger issue may well be whether Canada’s broadcasters violated the Competition Act by conspiring to not air perfectly lawful political advertisements.
First, it is important to emphasize again that fair dealing under copyright already permits use of many broadcaster clips without the need for further permission. While the scope of fair dealing is not unlimited, the broad approach dictated by the Supreme Court of Canada means that many uses are already permitted under the law. Therefore, the claims of co-opting broadcasters, theft, and risks to press freedom are simply wrong.
Second, the proposed change is problematic, but not because it creates a political advertising exception. The exception may be of limited value, but the problem lies in the inequitable policy of creating two tiers of rights for political speech. As currently crafted, the exception would only apply to political parties, politicians, candidates, and their agents. The creation of an exception that only allows a select few to benefit is not a provision that can be defended on freedom of political speech grounds. If the government is convinced that stronger protection for political speech is needed, there are far better options, namely a full fair use provision or the inclusion of political speech as a fair dealing purpose that would be available to all.
Third, the entire strategy is rather puzzling since the proposed exception does not address the underlying issue: broadcasters are now refusing to air legal advertisements from political parties. Documents obtained by others under the Access to Information Act reveal that the CBC was the instigator behind the April 2014 warning letter to all political parties that the broadcasters wold not accept political advertisements using their content without express authorization. The email trail reveals that the CBC recognized that it could not reject the advertisements on copyright grounds. Instead, the broadcasters conspired to adopt a policy to reject the ads anyway, an approach that smacks of copyright misuse and a potential Competition Act violation.
The odd thing is that the proposed copyright exception would have little impact on the broadcaster policy. The legal change would not require broadcasters to air the advertisements and since the decision to refuse to air is presumably not grounded in copyright law, the change would not alter the broadcaster position. The entire episode ultimately raises troubling questions about why the CBC was pursuing efforts to limit legal uses of its work (I’ve argued it should open up its content for wider use), why the government is bothering with a provision that does not solve its concern, and perhaps most importantly, why has there been so little focus on a broadcaster policy to refuse to air political advertisements that by their own admission are perfectly legal.