My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) examines efforts in Canada to develop a national digital information strategy in light of a national summit on the issue held last week in Montebello, Quebec. The column notes that the good news is that many provincial governments and organizations are not waiting for Ottawa to act, citing initiatives by the Alberta and Quebec governments, Alouette Canada, Synergies, the McCord Museum, and the blossoming of user generated content.
This enormous energy suggests that digitization will flourish regardless of whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Industry Minister Maxime Bernier, and Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda adopt a formal strategy. However, despite the good news, the summit also left little doubt that there are immediate steps that can be taken to pave the way for even more.
In fact, I argue that the federal government would do well to resist introducing expensive new initiatives by first maximizing the benefits that can be extracted from the current set of policies and programs.
For example, Canada spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on research funding through its three federal granting institutions in the health, sciences, and social science fields. The government should mandate an open access model that would require that all taxpayer-funded research be made available to the public at no charge within six months of initial publication.
Ottawa could also amend the legal deposit program that requires all Canadian publishers to provide the National Library with two copies of every newly published book. By expanding the program’s requirements to also include a digital copy, the government would effortlessly build a digital library featuring thousands of new books.
The government could also address some relatively non-controversial copyright issues that currently pose significant access barriers to digital information. Crown copyright should be dropped and a new policy for orphan works would also foster greater digital access by removing the risk associated with using older works that have not yet entered the public domain. Although more contentious, an expansion of the Copyright Act's fair dealing provision would help open the floodgates to private sector digitization programs. The presence of a broader "fair use" provision in the U.S. has convinced Google to partner with nearly a dozen leading universities to digitize millions of books. A parallel Canadian provision could similarly stimulate digital access initiatives with Canadian partners.
As the summit drew to a close, several participants noted that this effort should not be viewed as a digital strategy for Canada, but rather as a strategy for a digital Canada. Indeed, digitization is already here, forever changing the way we communicate, educate, and compete in the global marketplace.