Copyfight down for the count 

By Karen Herland

As debate heats up around who owns ideas and who should access them, creative tools, like this comic book, have been developed to address what is at stake. Magnifying glass

As debate heats up around who owns ideas and who should access them, creative tools, like this comic book, have been developed to address what is at stake.

Canadians have become embroiled in a copyfight that concerns consumers, artists and the entertainment industry. In the digital age, the stakes are high.

When Michael Geist first heard rumours about new copyright legislation, he decided to start Fair Copyright for Canada as a Facebook group. "It was the most natural place to start the discussion".

Within a day he had 1 000 people signed on, andnine months later, membership is hovering around 90 000. The SRO crowd at his lecture in the EV Building on Sept. 15 suggests that the subject is of interest on campus, even though the election call effectively scuttles Bill C-61.

Geist, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, is considered one of the country's experts on copyright. "Copyright is a stand-in for a whole series of things people are thinking about the internet," Geist said about why this issue has proven so galvanizing.

Geist is concerned that Bill C-61 leans too heavily toward preserving commercial rights for the entertainment industry, at the cost of consumer rights, to use material they purchase as they choose. He joked that the bill so faithfully reflects the wording of the equivalent U.S. legislation that "the U.S. could probably get us for copyright infringement "

The internet provides opportunities for organizing as well. Geist singled out Fair Copyright Montreal as a particularly effective wiki that explores the proposed legislation. He has also set up the C-61 in 61 seconds video contest (the winners are on his web site) and other ways for people to communicate their frustration. Citing polls held over the summer he reported that "most people were strongly against the bill in almost every demographic in almost every region across the country."

The initial proposal for Bill C-61 garnered about 20 000 physical letters from people who heard about the proposed legislation. Compare that to the 700 or so briefs a parliamentary committee on the subject received in 2004. "Now you can get that kind of response within 24 hours." He discussed numerous ways that government can use internet tools to consult their constituencies.

Copyright was initially developed as an incentive to produce and share creative work. It has increasingly become a limit on how material can be used. For many artists, including The Barenaked Ladies, Avril Lavigne and Sarah McLachlan, those controls are not always in their own interests. They, as well as numerous other writers and cultural producers, argue that making material more available digitally allows them to reach a wider audience who will then spend money on their shows or other materials.

Of particular concern are the anti-circumvention limitations placed on picking digital locks. Geist suggests that consumers should be able to adapt their purchases to whatever context is most convenient for them. This might include creating DVD backups or converting material for use on their iPods. Current restrictions also hinder more creative uses like appropriation art, music sampling or even juxtaposing a song with news footage for display on a blog. Geist is concerned about a variety of fair dealing non-commercial possibilities that call for more flexibility.

For the first time, art is being outlawed "not for the substance, but for the way it was made." Geist said that these new possibilities are not properly addressed in the proposed legislation "This sort of policy can move us forward, but instead it's based on policy from 10 years ago."

Geist was invited here by the Canadian Journal of Communication (which has a podcast of his talk available at along with a great set of links) Communication Studies Department, Mobile Media Lab, CINERG (Concordia Interactive Narrative Experimentation and Research Group) and Hexagram to lecture on the bill. He urged his audience to make copyright an election issue by asking candidates where they stand.


Concordia University