Why Canada's Upcoming Copyright Law is Bad

In order to stop ordinary people from violating copyright, companies have encoded content (particularly music and film) so that it requires special software to access. The software embeds rules determining what access is permitted and what access is not. Unlike copyright, which is interpreted by human beings, these rules are enforced by a machine. This law makes it illegal to circumvent the machine’s determination.

But the machine is inflexible. It doesn’t know whether it’s ok for a student to copy a journal article, for a researcher to look for security or privacy flaws, for a Microsoft customer to play music on an iPod. So the software prevents activities which are otherwise perfectly legitimate and legal. Where copyright grants control over some uses of a work, this technology (DRM) grants control over all uses. And the U.S. version of this law, the DMCA, by banning all circumvention regardless of the purpose, makes that control inviolable.

That’s the first problem.

The second problem is that to decode the content, this software must be present in every device that plays it back. It’s in your cell phone. It’s in your DVD player. It’s in your computer. In order for the law to be effective, it forbids you to interfere with the operation of the devices you own. It becomes illegal to unlock your cell phone to use it with a different wireless provider. It becomes illegal to play DVDs on operating systems other than those made by Apple and Microsoft. The only one who can determine what your devices can and can’t do is someone else. You lose control of your own property.

But that’s not all.

Access must only be given to the right people (companies that make the technology – DVD players, operating systems, etc.) but not to the wrong people (you and me). Who decides? The answer must be a single company or organization. They make the rules about who can play back content – and who can encode content too. You can’t publish protected music for the iPod without Apple’s permission. You can’t make a device to play it back without Apple’s permission either. These companies and organizations have tremendous monopoly power. Control of the content requires control of the technology (and of our property), which becomes control of the market.

That control does not lie with artists, authors or musicians. In fact, because the technology is primarily American, it doesn’t lie with Canadians at all. This law would place Canadian innovation and Canadian culture in a position of dependency relative to the United States.

That’s only the part of the law we know about. There will be more.

Oh yes, I should mention – the copy prevention mechanisms don’t work. They might stop you and me from making legitimate use of material, but they don’t stop the serious pirates from profiting off someone else’s work – after which ordinary folks can use those pirated copies, which, because they are digital, are perfect. This raises the question: are these technologies and laws really meant to stop piracy – are they really meant to benefit creators – or are they intended to consolidate the power of the monopoly and cartel positions of certain publishers and technology companies?

2007-12-07

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