The Return of Captain Copyright? CIPO Launches “Promoting Respect for IP Rights”

Longtime readers of this blog will recall Captain Copyright, the ill-fated Access Copyright copyright "education initiative" that was withdrawn in 2007 following intense criticism.  Copyright education initiatives have remained a focus of some rights groups, who believe that convincing kids of the value of copyright can lead to greater respect for copyright law.  In fact, in my earlier writing on copyright policy laundering, I noted that a consistent theme has been calls for the government to create and fund public education and awareness programs.

It now appears that the government is laying the foundation to do just that. The Canadian Intellectual Property Office, which falls under Industry Minister Tony Clement's mandate, has quietly launched a "Promoting Respect of Intellectual Property Rights" initiative that involves "exploring ways it can contribute more actively to promoting the respect of intellectual property rights." According to documents obtained from a source recently consulted by CIPO, it is starting the initiative by conducting a gap analysis to identify existing IPR respect promotion programs, key messages, and how CIPO might partner with these efforts.  The scope is described as follows:

CIPO's mission is to accelerate Canada's economic development by fostering the use of intellectual property systems and the exploitation of intellectual property (IP) information. The IP rights delivered by the Office enable its owner to profit from the creative endeavour. However, inventors and innovators will only avail themselves of the IP system if this value is respected, i.e., the greater the IPR is respected, the greater the value.

The focus for our IPR promotion work, we believe, will be on awareness-raising and educational programs highlighting the benefits to owners, economic development and Canadians at large, more so than the narrower concept of IPR enforcement. We define “respect of IPR” as: “Understanding what is IP, knowing of the existence of an IP right and affirmatively respecting that right.” 

CIPO then poses a series of questions to non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders.  These ask for details on any prior initiatives, target audiences, key messages, channels of communication, measurements of impact, success stories, partners, or other suggestions on how to promote respect for IP.

While intellectual property is important, the CIPO initiative (which is not yet public) raises some questions and alarm bells.  The first is the premise that inventors and innovators will only avail themselves of the IP system if IP is respected.  In fact, from a copyright law perspective, CIPO's role is largely irrelevant since creators need not do anything in order to avail themselves of protection (copyright protection does not require registration).  Moreover, the notion that "the greater the IPR is respected, the greater the value" is not necessarily the case.  Genuine promotion of respect for IPR must surely involve respect both for IP's breadth and its limits, yet most proposed education programs spend virtually no time discussing fair dealing, alternative licencing, etc.

This leads to a series of questions – will CIPO be including respect for fair dealing and user rights in its efforts to build respect for IP?  Does its outreach efforts include user groups who may promote respect for the balance in IP? Is there really a lack of respect for patents and trademarks in Canada or is this fundamentally about copyright? How many tax dollars does it intend to spend on these efforts?  Will CIPO open the process when it comes to considering who to fund or support?

Perhaps the biggest question mark, however, arises from the timing. With the government currently in the midst of a national copyright consultation (speak out today), it is odd to find the Industry Minister – one of the two key players in the consultation – effectively overseeing an initiative at CIPO that seems to have its mind made up about intellectual property.  The copyright consultation asks Canadians what changes would best foster innovation, creativity, competition and investment.  Yet a department within Industry Canada is working behind the scenes with the view that the answer lies in fostering greater respect for IP.  Given the recent history of one-sided copyright education campaigns, it seems more likely that CIPO's activities will undermine respect for the Minister's own copyright consultation.

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