Navigating Canada’s Copyright Conflicts

The Hill Times runs a special op-ed (HT version (sub required), homepage version) I've written on the political challenges the government faces on copyright reform.  I note that in a sure sign of an impending throne speech, copyright lobby groups are out in full force calling on the government to prioritize intellectual property protection in its fall legislative agenda.  Despite efforts to put forward a united front, however, what is readily apparent to those close to the process is that copyright reform is rife with conflicts that create a significant political risk and require the expenditure of enormous political capital.

The recent revelations about a potential conflict of interest within the Canadian Heritage Copyright Policy Branch are certainly the most obvious manifestation of conflict concerns. Although perceived conflict issues in this area are nothing new, the existence of a personal relationship between the government’s head of copyright policy and Hollywood's top Canadian lobbyist at a time when the government is pursuing a copyright reform bill raises uncomfortable questions about who knew what and when within Canadian Heritage.

Yet focusing exclusively on this form of conflict would be a mistake, since conflicted agendas, policies, and stakeholders present a more treacherous minefield.  These include:

  • divisions within the record label community, as some leading Canadian companies were opposed to the inclusion of the Canadian Independent Record Production Association as a signatory to the piece. Moreover, last month the Canadian Recording Industry Association split with Canada's copyright collectives, seeking Federal Court of Canada permission to formally oppose the collectives' support for the expansion of the private copying levy. Add in the emergence of the Canadian Music Creators Coalition, comprised of Canada's best-known musicians, and the claims of industry unity fall flat.
  • conflicts within the education sector as new licensing systems and court decisions raise questions about the necessity spending millions of tax dollars on certain copyright licenses. Moreover, the education community is itself conflicted with students and university teachers increasingly opposed to the copyright reform proposals promoted by provincial education ministers.
  • an assortment of other divided stakeholders wait in the wings including the powerful telecommunications companies (seeking support for ISP immunity and the expansion of fair dealing), broadcasters (seeking the elimination of some copyright payments), photographers (seeking expansion of their rights), and visual artists (campaigning for greater certainty of access).

Beyond all of these stakeholders, there are two elephants in the room that also face significant conflict.  One is the United States, which has made intellectual property protection a top trade policy priority.  Canada has already succumbed to demands for anti-camcording legislation, but conflict over anti-counterfeiting and copyright measures remains.

The other major stakeholder was scarcely present during past copyright reform efforts – Canadian consumers and individual creators. In recent months, controversies over the security and privacy threats from digital rights management technologies, the lack of interoperability for online entertainment services, and the use of technology to interfere with basic consumer property rights make it clear that no government seeking popular support can put forward a copyright package that does not prioritize consumers.

Reconciling these conflicts presents an enormous challenge, yet there are some solutions.  U.S. pressure can likely be addressed by focusing on anti-counterfeiting measures such as stronger border enforcement, an issue that appeals to the security imperative and faces no significant opposition on the domestic front.  Addressing consumer concerns necessitates a legislative package that focuses on restoring balance to Canadian copyright law, thereby emboldening a new generation of Canadian creators, preserving consumer property rights, and capturing the public's attention.  These include provisions that formally legalize recording television shows (time shifting), permit personal backup copies of CDs and DVDs (format shifting), expand fair dealing to allow for innovative new business models, and establish a close link between legal protection for copy-control technologies and actual copyright infringement.

Copyright policy is typically a divisive and challenging issue for any government.  For a minority government seeking a broader mandate, navigating copyrights' conflicts is guaranteed to lead to choppy waters.


  1. who knew what when
    Once again you have raised the question of the Frith/Neri relationship. Perhaps it is time to be more proactive if you really want the answers. I am surprised that this has not made it into main stream media here in Canada. I guess we are already so disillusioned with the political process that nothing shocks us anymore.

    Frank Magazine outlined with eerie accurateness who knew what when in the Frith/Neri Alliance. These two hid in plain sight throughout June, and had an established enough relationship by June 29th for him to spend the July Ist weekend with Ms.Neri and her daughter in Ms. Neri’s home. Ms. Neri reported her conflict of interest relationship some five weeks later. However, not only did she remain in her post but was appointed an acting ADM during the cabinet shuffle. Ms. Neri was only removed from her position when their relationship became widely known.

    Perhaps it is time people started asking questions of their MP’s instead of simply blogging.

  2. Mainstream Media
    “I am surprised that this has not made it into main stream media here in Canada. I guess we are already so disillusioned with the political process that nothing shocks us anymore.”

    That’s pretty much wishful thinking. It’s more likely that the mainstream media has investments in copyright reform to begin with, so the less it’s mentioned, the better they look.

    If I remember right, Sam Bulte received funding from CanWest. She then held a fund raiser to get donations in exchange for political influence. Not a peep was mentioned in the mainstream media and it isn’t difficult to see why. I’m betting it’s the exact same story with this whole conflict of interest affair in the current Copyright debate. The only people who will talk about it are people who are capable of doing op-eds in more relaxed newspapers (ala Toronto Star)

    The best way to keep quiet is diversion… don’t mention copyright and point to the situation in Burma instead… either that or Afghanistan… or the dollar… anything but copyright issues that the media likely has a hand in.