Columns Archive

How the U.S. Got Its Canadian Copyright Bill

Appeared in the Toronto Star on June 16, 2008 as How the U.S. Got Its Canadian Copyright Bill

Last week's introduction of new copyright legislation ignited a firestorm with thousands of Canadians expressing genuine shock at provisions that some MPs argued would create a "police state." As opposition to the copyright bill mounts, the most commonly asked question is "why"?  

Why given the obvious public concern with the bill stretching back to last year did Industry Minister Jim Prentice plow ahead with rules that confirm many of the public's worst fears?  Why did a minority government introduce a bill that appears likely to generate strong opposition from both the Liberals and NDP with limited political gain?  Why did senior Ministers refuse to even meet with many creator and consumer groups who have unsurprisingly voiced disappointment with the bill?

While Prentice has responded by citing the need to update Canada's copyright law in order to comply with the World Intellectual Property Organization's Internet treaties, the reality may be that those treaties have little to do with Bill C-61.

Instead, the bill dubbed by critics as the Canadian Digital Millennium Copyright Act (after the U.S. version of the law) is the result of an intense public and private campaign waged by the U.S. government to pressure Canada into following its much-criticized digital copyright model.  The U.S. pressure has intensified in recent years, particularly since there is a growing international trend toward greater copyright flexibility with countries such as Japan, New Zealand, and Israel either implementing or considering more flexible copyright standards.

The public campaign was obvious.  U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins was outspoken on the copyright issue, characterizing Canadian copyright law as the weakest in the G7 (despite the World Economic Forum ranking it ahead of the U.S.).  

The U.S. Trade Representatives Office (USTR) made Canada a fixture on its Special 301 Watch list, an annual compilation of countries that the U.S. believes have sub-standard intellectual property laws.  The full list contains nearly 50 countries accounting for 4.4 billion people or approximately 70 percent of the world's population.

Most prominently, last year U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and John Cornyn, along with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, escalated the rhetoric on Canadian movie piracy, leading to legislative reform that took just three weeks to complete.

The private campaign was even more important.  Sources say that emboldened by the successful campaign for anti-camcording legislation, U.S. officials upped the ante at the Security and Prosperity Partnership meeting in Montebello, Quebec last summer.  Canadian officials arrived ready to talk about a series of economic concerns but were quickly rebuffed by their U.S. counterparts, who indicated that progress on other issues would depend upon action on the copyright file.  

Those demands were echoed earlier by the USTR, which, according to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, made veiled threats about "thickening the border" between Canada and the U.S. if Canada refused to put copyright reform on the legislative agenda.

Faced with unrelenting U.S. pressure, the newly installed Industry Minister was presented with a mandate letter that required a copyright bill that would meet U.S. approval.  The government promised copyright reform in the October 2007 Speech from the Throne and was set to follow through last December, only to pull back at the last hour in the face of mounting public concern (Disclosure: I created the Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook group that has more than 60,000 members and played a role in this public opposition).

In the months that followed, Prentice's next attempt to bring the copyright bill forward was stalled by internal cabinet concerns over how the bill would play out in public.  The bill was then repackaged to include the new consumer-focused provisions such as the legalization of recording television shows and the new peer-to-peer download $500 damage award.  

The heart of the bill, however, remained largely unchanged since satisfying U.S. pressure remained priority number one.  Just after 11:00 a.m. last Thursday, the U.S. got its Canadian copyright bill.

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


  1. America’s Canada
    Why is it our politician’s that were elected by us, do not listen to us? They know that we do not want all these American Interests in our laws, yet they continue to push and push. I just hope that the Opposition grows a set of balls and realizes that YES THE CANADIAN PEOPLE WANT AN ELECTION! We are sick of American interests being pushed through, and Harper being the laptop of King Bush. This bill has no potential for the consumer. Sure it gives us the right to copy cd’s and dvd’s to our personal devices..but only if there is no copy protection on those media. Hello, CSS on dvd’s, copy protection on audio cd’s. There is no point in giving us this right, because it is circumvented by the copy protection that is already there.

    What is the point of a bill that gives us the right, then takes it away…oh yes, it is the good old American way. Make you think you are getting something (that you were already entitled too, hello FAIR USE) then take it away by hiding it in the fine print.

    Mr Geist I really wish you were able to get on CBC or something to educate the people in this country to let them know just how bad this bill is. Considering that this bill is not even on CBC’s front page anymore (when it was on the facts were wrong to begin with) we need to let the general public know.

  2. Push the MPs
    Hi Michael,

    C-61 is a hot issue for me since I feel that it amounts to nothing less than:
    1. An encroachment on my freedom
    2. My country\’s leaders blindly following policies and models manufactured in another country, without any concern about what the citizens of Canada want or desire

    Your blog and columns in the Toronto Star have been a beacon of light in the storm! I can\’t thank you enough for informing Canadians about their rights and the things they can do in order to oppose C-61.

    My 10 cents to your campaign was that I wrote to my MP about the bill urging her to raise the matter in the parliament. I would advise all readers of your blog to atleast consider doing something similar (watch Michael\’s youtube video that tells you 30 things you can do).

    And also, as Dale wrote above, please make an appearance on CBC or CTV or CityTV and inform more people about this. Even talk shows on radio stations are an excellent idea.

    sorry. we have a fucked up government in the USA that has no respect at all for the public service mandate, they are whores and beholden only to big business and not the people.

    sorry they have infected Canada too.

  4. NDK Creative Artist says:

    52nd State of America
    So, using a Bill ostensibly about copyright, the Imperial States of America has made the State of Canada the 52nd State after Iraq. Lovely way to treat your democratic allies.

  5. chicken
    So essentially the Conservatives are chickens, not willing to stand up for Canadians, and instead are selling us out in the supposed interest of keeping economic sanctions off the table. This needs to be the message that Canadians (and Americans) have to hear. Then we can treat our current representatives accordingly.

  6. Information Security Professio says:

    Write, write and write again
    All I can say is write Ministers Prentice and Verner, cc: your MP, and keep writing them until they take notice. Until an election is called, it’s all we can do.


  7. Anyone know if it is possible to take this to the supreme court,an we as the ppl with enough support can we challenge this in court ?? any lawyers out there?

  8. fed up with canaDUHHH says:

    America’s Copyright Bill
    Thank you Michael Geist, for the trememdous effort you have put forth on this most important issue. Newspapers are another way of getting the message out, and I have requested our local paper do a piece on it–they responded with a well-written editorial that covers the music end of it, and I took it upon myself to inform people through the comments section–still doing it in bits and pieces. The very complicated nature of this bill is a large part of what makes it so dangerous.

    Keep it going, sir, my dream of my music being heard in its original form is depending on it. You have my word that I will do what I can in the wild west here.

    Thank you again. As a certain fictional character with black hair amd pointy ears once said–“Live Long And Prosper!”

  9. First off, I completely agree with everyone here. Unfortunately, there is really nothing that our(Canadian government) can do. With 90% of our produced goods going to American consumers, you either play by their American rules or you can’t sell there, Very simple really. Who in their right mind would criple an economy(Canadian) over music copyright?
    Personally, I have a greater concern with the SPP and the North American Union!

  10. cubiclegrrl says:

    My apologies, too
    As an American currently jumping through the hoops to become a Canadian resident, I echo the sentiment of “g0taclue.” I personally don’t think that Harper would have the stones to be half as thuggish, were it not for the fact that the American voter and their Democratic proxies let the Bush Junta ride roughshod over everything we used to be proud of. I am very much looking forward to the day when I can cast my vote as a Canadian citizen. Sad, isn’t it, that I have to move to another country to regain the rights I was born with, hey? From where I sit, the US looks more and more like a decaying empire, sinking into plutocracy at the top and xenophobic ignorance at the bottom. Canada seems to embrace its diversity and its responsibilities as world citizen.

    The recent changes in immigration policy distressed me (even though I will probably benefit from the so-called “reforms” because I am American-born and educated) as a step back from that embrace of diversity. It would be more depressing still to see a minority government pimp Canadian rights to the same fat b@$+@rds who are calling too many shots south of the border. You don’t want to become like us, trust me. Bad enough that the airlines automatically consider you a terrorist from the moment you buy a ticket. Now the entertainment industry is allowed to consider you a thief from the moment you buy a CD/DVD.