Yet Another Call for An ISP Levy

Marian Hebb writes an op-ed in the Georgia Straight calling for a collective rights model for written materials found online, arguing that it "would likely mean a small subscription increase, payable by users to their Internet service provider, to cover most copyright material they can download freely from the Internet." 


  1. As a moderately heavy user of online content, am I the only one in favour of these levies? I’d like to see them for music, video, and text. It would get rid of all of the legal problems that face content downloaders while solving other problems too such as the ISPs hiding behind big scary illegal downloading to excuse DPI and limiting their investment in infrastructure.

  2. Considering we already pay some of the highest ISP charges in the developed world for some of the lowest speeds, I’d say their already making out like bandits. If ISPs start letting industry groups set the prices, say goodbye to being able to afford internet access ever again.

  3. @Gerrit
    I would suspect that you’ll find yourself in something of a minority. Unfortunately the idea of a levy for this and a levy for that is gaining traction; at least among the producers and publishers. Why? That is a good question. I suspect that some of it is because of the recordable media levy; the recording industry got one, so why can’t I have a levy for my special interest?

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but why should a light, or non-, user on online content contribute for your usage? In some cases you may already be paying to access a site for content… adding a levy would have them double dipping. Neither does a levy compensate the non-members of the organization (for instance, in the case of the recording levy, foreign content creators and Canadians who are not members of the collectives). Realistically a levy only serves to perpetuate a business model that doesn’t work all that well in the modern world.

  4. I’m not sold on the idea of a levy, but if it were collected and distributed such that any creator could register and collect a share of the levy based on the popularity of their work, I don’t think it would be a bad model.

    As for the “why should I pay for your usage” argument, as long as the levy is not too narrowly targeted, it can be considered a social good: a cultural subsidy to promote new work (especially independent artists, assuming they are not effectively barred from collecting) and overall social welfare and stability (getting industry onside so they stop lobbying for draconian laws that hurt everyone, ending certain debates about what counts as legitimate Internet usage, and generally more certainty for everyone). You may feel that you personally end up paying more or less of your “fair share,” but that is the case with every tax or collective program.

  5. @Will: That to me seems to be the strongest argument. Independent artists who now are forced to give away music, film, etc. would be entitled to compensation in the same way as the larger artists. People, I would think, might also be more willing to have their usage followed anonymously if they knew that it was going to compensate the artists who’s works they’re using. All told, yes the labels will lose out (boo hoo) but the artists themselves would seem to benefit from this system, as would the users who could now access as much content as they’d like knowing that it was pre-paid.

    @Anon-k: If I were paying for a levy, I wouldn’t have to subscribe to sites that charge me. As with music now that I intend to copy on to a levied media, I would just download it for free and be perfectly justified to do so.

    As for non-group members not being compensated, if the levy group was independently operated, why couldn’t they track down the artists who’s work was downloaded and send them a cheque. Granted, that seems a little utopian but, ultimately, fair. And no-one would have cause to complain.

  6. @Gerrit
    The current private copying levy only compensates Canadian recording artists and record companies (songwriters and music publishers of any nationality can apply).

    If any ISP levy follows a similar model, it would seem that at best the process would remove legal liability for Canadians who downloaded Canadian content – foreign recording artists would not be compensated, and so legal liability would still exist.

    If in fact a levy would remove all liability for anything on the Internet I think people would support it. How much of what the average person downloads is 100% Canadian content?

  7. @Gerrit
    I agree that you wouldn’t have to pay, at least for those sites that are eligible to receive levy proceeds. Therein lies the rub. The content producer needs to be compensated… where they aren’t either because they aren’t a member of a collective or because they are foreign, they’d still have, what some would refer to, a legitimate complaint.

    While I agree that that the artist whose work was downloaded would ideally be passively compensated in the Utopian world, this really would only work for sites that record the downloads (and of course, what about aborted downloads? If the producer gets credit for those, the system is prone to abuse). In cases where a person emails a work to someone else, or the site doesn’t record downloads, the copyright holder probably wouldn’t be compensated (their cut would go to someone else)…

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that the levy concept is particularly workable. It sounds good, but when the fecal matter hits the rotary air moving machine (the crap hits the fan), there are some major holes that (my gut feeling more than anything else) will leave the copyright holders who would most benefit from something like this in the lurch.

  8. Anon-K writes, “this really would only work for sites that record the downloads.” I think the incentives are aligned with an effective levy.

    Consider the situation now. People are passionate about culture – music, film, TV shows, books, whatever. When they share something, it is typically because they want others to have the same wonderful experience they had. If they don’t share files, they share lists of favorites: top songs, favorite books, etc. Never mind illegal copying, this has long been commonplace: you see a great movie, you tell your friends. How much better to be able to *give* it to them? Moreover, many of these people are fans – as in fanatics. They make heroes of artists.

    Now imagine you know you are paying a levy – for music, for example. Who do you want that money to go to? Of course you will want it to go to the artists you admire for the work you love. Given the choice between a site that ensured your money went to the right people, and one that didn’t, I bet you would choose the site with integrity. I bet people would consider those sites that failed to do so to be ethically bankrupt. They might even start throwing around accusations of “theft.”

    At the Vancouver roundtable, the Songwriters’ representative spoke about his association’s levy scheme. He said they do not support protection for DRM, but *are* interested in protection for rights management information to prevent people from stripping authorship, publication, and other similar metadata from music. This obviously fits in well with their levy scheme – but I suspect social norms alone might do the job if fans were able to detect who did or did not maintain the integrity of authorship information.

  9. Small clarification: I said the songwriters don’t support protection for DRM. This is true, but could be read to mean they oppose such protection. That isn’t the case. Their proposal says they “do not oppose” protection for TPMs.

  10. @Geof
    I think we may be talking at cross purposes here. If I understood your posting correctly, then a subscription model to a download site would be closer to what I think you are suggesting. In this way your money is more likely to go to the artist than through a levy. To do this through a levy may in fact ultimately entail the ISP looking at the content of what they are transporting for you (essentially DPI). Why? To capture the downloads from sites that either don’t record, or foreign sites that don’t report the stats.

    Note that I am not opposed to the content creators being paid; in fact I want them to be paid. However, I am not a believer in levies. Part of this is politics (and I don’t mean left vs right). In the past I’ve been involved with a registered charity that also has a certain amount of lobbying activity that they do. Most of the money was raised through annual fund raising events in Canadian communities. Ticket purchasers automatically became a member, whether they wanted to or not. For instance, on 200 tickets sold they would have 200 members, whereas if the memberships were sold separately they’d get 10, maybe even 20 members. Why was it done this way? Because it allowed the charity to claim to represent 200 members, not 20… in dealing with the politicians this gave them more clout.

    Why did I bring this up? In general I see a levy being administered by a “not-for-profit” group. In order to collect you would need to register as a member. Now, why would the government do this? Because the not-for-profit says that they’ll do it for free (well, free to the government) or a good chunk of money less than what the government would spend doing it (I’d expect that they’d fund it out of the monies the government gives them to dispense). For the government, this is a winner, in particular in times of fiscal trouble. For the not-for-profit, what do they gain? The members, giving them more lobbying clout. Potentially money to spend on lobbying (the difference between what the government gives them and the total of their costs and dispenses). In the end, who loses? The content producer, in particular one who is not a member. Even if you as the consumer want them to get the money, they don’t. This is part of the problem with the current recordable media levy. If you aren’t a member of one or more of the collectives (for instance, you don’t want them claiming to represent you), you can’t claim. Thus, for me if the content creator wants to be paid for their work, it is better for them to be paid at source rather than through the levy system.

  11. This “Assume Guilt” culture is getting too common in Canada
    Not everyone uses their connection to download copyrighted material.

    And I’ll ask again, as people download from me *my* copyrighted material, where do I pick up my cheque?

  12. @Anon-K

    I think I misunderstood you. I thought you were suggesting whatever channels the work passed through, it might not be correctly attributed and therefore the artists might not get paid. I was simply saying I don’t think that would be a problem.

    Whether levies are a good idea is another issue. I will admit that I have not given a tremendous amount of thought to them: my central concerns around copyright are with expression, cultural participation and democracy, not so much with business models and money. My impression is that a significant number of fair copyright people are opposed to levies. Two major arguments are 1) the levy is likely to increase over time, and 2) the money will go to collectives, not artists. Can you think of a way to construct a levy that would be effective?

    What I want to see a way to make the commonplace activities of a large segment of the population legitimate and productive. Some in industry say they see levies as a way to do that. The suggestion to use subscriptions to private services instead sounds very much like “forget trying to stop private infringement and find business models that work, like subscriptions.” This might very well be correct (and has been echoed by a number of people in the music industry), but I don’t see it being politically powerful enough right now to divert draconian copyright, or to permit remixing.

  13. @Geof
    To ensure that the appropriate parties get compensated for their works as actually downloaded, I unfortunately can’t see a regime that would allow that to occur and still not be overly expensive to operate or run the risk of breaking Canadian privacy laws.

    With respect to your last para, I agree. I am just not so sure that a levy is the way to approach it. Rather, I see the copyright reform process currently underway as at least the starting point. A balance between the rights of the consumer, the producer and the publisher need to be established. A reasonable hierarchy of rights needs to be stated (for instance, the consumer’s right to make a copy for their own keeping, as a backup or to use in high-risk situations, for instance a CD that is kept in a car, trumps any provision allowing DRM where DRM prevents the allowed copy making process). I’d also like to see not just the actual rights in the law, but also a philosophy which would provide guidance to the courts when a case does go in front of them. In particular, this guidance would help with assessing rights with respect to new technologies.

    @Gregg: I don’t see this as a case of the assumption of guilt (although there are elements of that present), but rather that the copyright holders advocating for the levy view it as a simple, and cheap, way for them to get what they think they deserve. The expense is borne by someone else… it is also short sighted. Wasn’t it the RIAA/CRIA that first agitated for the recordable media levy? When they tried to sue and it got shot down because of the levy they realized that the levy backfired on them, and have since started to agitate to drop the levy. A levy seems to be a reaction to the idea that it is too expensive to track down the folks that actually are making illegal copies and distributing them, so instead we’ll make society pay as a group punishment.

  14. Bob Smits says:

    Phooey on levies
    Levies won’t work. We’ve done that with Canadian Copyright levy on recordable media already, and the entertainment industry will never be satisfied until they control every copy you make, on whatever hardware you use, and you need to pay for the same content again and again and again.

    First, don’t penalize those of us who don’t download illegal material, second, lets work to reduce copyright length to something like the original term of 14 years..

  15. @Anon-K
    A copyright levy is a great idea, you just need to read more about it. If you do not use the Internet to access copyrighted content, which I hardly believe is the case if you examined your Internet browsing pattern (e.g., have you ever viewed a YouTube video?), then ISPs can have an option for a cheaper access plan with lower download/upload quota and lower/insignificant levy.

    Various forms of levies exist in other spheres of our existence, regardless of how much we use (or don’t use something). Need a cellphone? There is a mandatory system access charge that everyone pays. Need a car? There is a fixed annual registration fee that you have to pay, regardless of how much you drive or don’t drive your car.

    I think the issue of conflicting commercial interests between ISPs and content providers can simply be solved through levies, and I hope they realize it and implement it.