Don’t Panic

Matt McCann – The Aquinian

So, Sunday marked the end of the federal government’s first string of public copyright consultations since 2001, during which Canadians were invited to voice their concerns about how copyright laws effect their lives, how long rights should last, and how best to foster innovation and competition in an increasingly digital world.

The talks came at a time when countries worldwide are struggling to come to terms with a new reality – that information, artistic creations, and intellectual property aren’t as exclusive as they once were.

It lasted almost two months, and according to government figures, over 5,000 submissions were received during the process – from both stakeholders and ordinary Canadians, in the form of either direct submissions, an online discussion forum, invitation-only roundtables, or public town-hall meetings (including one, for some reason, in my hometown of Peterborough, ON).

Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, has been following the consultations since they were first announced, and relates in his own short answer to the questions raised by the committee, how influential copyright law can be in an academic setting.

“[C]opyright matters because I am a professor and my students need access to copyrighted materials and the freedom to use those materials,” Geist wrote. “It matters because I am a researcher who needs assurance that as materials are archived they will not be locked down under digital rights management.”

His voice, one amidst the familiar claims of falling profits and the need to compensate artists, authors or other rights holders so often raised by the respective industries, is echoed in a number of new initiatives that hope to make information accessible to everyone.

One of them – Project Gutenberg Canada, part of a larger, worldwide network of Project Gutenberg – describes itself as the first and largest single collection of free electronic books in the public domain. The Canadian branch also submitted its stance to the consultation committee.

Meanwhile, as Amazon pulled already-purchased digital copies of books directly from users’ Kindles, Google finished remunerating the copyright owner of books it scanned without their permission – part of their plan to make digital copies of every book in the world accessible to anyone.

Finally though, in what may be the most cautionary – yet hopeful – submission to the committee, Cory Doctorow, a Canadian-born internationally recognized author and expert on digital copyright, outlined what he sees as the only option for any federal changes to Canada’s copyright laws.

“If we’re going to achieve a lasting peace in the knowledge wars,” he wrote, “it’s time to set property aside, time to start recognising that knowledge – valuable, precious, expensive knowledge – isn’t owned. Can’t be owned. The state should regulate our relative interests in the ephemeral realm of thought, but that regulation must be about knowledge, not a clumsy remake of the property system.”

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