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The Parallel Politics of the Environment and Copyright

Appeared in the Hill Times on October 9, 2006 as Parallel Federal Political World of Environment and Copyright

As the Conservatives prepare to roll out their policy plan for the environment, there is little doubt that environmental concerns have emerged as a major political issue.  With polls consistently confirming public concern with environmental sustainability, each of Canada's major political parties is anxious to be known as the most environmentally friendly. 

The focus on environmental issues is a relatively new phenomenon.  A generation ago, if the environment was considered at all, it was viewed as a niche issue too complex to matter to the average voter.  The complexity of environmental issues has not changed – most Canadians would be hard pressed to explain carbon emissions, the details of climate change, or the substance of the Kyoto agreement – yet the essence of environmental policy as clean air, clean water, and sustainable natural resources is clearly understood.

The emergence of the environment as a mainstream political issue is worth noting because today there is another issue that shows similar signs of moving from the periphery to the mainstream – copyright.

The similarities start with language – environmental advocates speak of protecting the environment and sustainable resources, while copyright advocates focus on the need to protect the public domain and to sustain access to Canadian culture.

The two issues are also similarly complex.  The average Canadians knows little about the intricacies of fair dealing or technological protection measures, yet the implications of copyright policies that hamper free speech, privacy, security, and consumer rights are far easier to appreciate.  Indeed, recent developments both here and abroad suggest that the issue is beginning to garner increased attention from the general public.

Given the large number of vocal stakeholders, including copyright collectives, industry associations, broadcasters, as well as education and library groups, prior copyright reform initiatives were viewed as thorny political issues that attracted plenty of lobbyists.  The reforms remained off the public's radar screen, however, generating limited public interest and enabling governments to broker compromises between a relatively small group of stakeholders.

The landscape began to change in the late 1990s, as millions of Canadians gravitated toward the Internet and began to purchase digital entertainment products such as CDs, DVDs, and video games.  The changes in technology transformed millions of Canadians into creators who increasingly recognized that copyright could be used to limit their fundamental freedoms and to enjoy their consumer products.  With the majority of Canadians now online, the public is now an active stakeholder and copyright has become one of their issues. 

Moreover, copyright policy itself has begun to change.  In recent years, the Supreme Court of Canada explicitly recognized the need for balance in copyright law, characterizing the law as a balance between creator and user rights.   The substance of copyright policy also begun to shift away from its focus on creators toward distributors of copyright products, who seek legal protections for technologies that can be used to lock-down digital content. 

It is those rules that have led to political repercussions in other jurisdictions.  In the Nordic countries, officials are presently negotiating with Apple Computer about changes to its iPod and iTunes service following growing consumer unrest and complaints to elected officials. 

In fact, Sweden is now home to the "Pirate Party", a political party focused primarily on copyright issues.  Last month, the party garnered nearly 35,000 votes, enough to place tenth among 40 political parties running for a place in Swedish Parliament.  While the total was less than one percent of the national vote, the party's presence forced several larger parties to alter their positions on copyright.

Similar developments have occurred in France, where opposition parties have forced user-friendly copyright amendments through their parliament.  In Australia, the government has been struggling with its implementation of the U.S. – Australia Free Trade Agreement in light of public concern over the copyright provisions.

In Canada, copyright has begun to attract voter attention.  Thousands of Canadians have signed petitions on copyright that have been presented in the House of Commons and during the last election campaign copyright played a role in the defeat of Liberal incumbent Sarmite Bulte in Parkdale-High Park, following criticism over her ties to copyright lobby groups.  Grassroots organizations focused on copyright representing the interests of artists, musicians, and consumers have formed in recent months and obtained meetings with Ministers and opposition critics.

Not surprisingly, political parties have begun to take note of these developments.  Both the NDP and Green Party have adopted more user-focused policy positions and the door now open to the Liberal Party to do the same.

The parallels between the environment and copyright are particularly relevant given the persistent reports that the Conservative government plans to introduce copyright reform legislation this fall.  If, as expected, a U.S. style approach is introduced, Canada will be ripe for the same opposition evidenced elsewhere as Canadians gradually learn of the proposal’s damaging effects on fundamental freedoms, personal privacy, and consumer rights and Canada’s opposition parties line up to court the "copyright vote."

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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