This week's edition of geek blogging has a political component thanks to this article in the Toronto Star (and thanks to Ray at PolSpy for pointing it out, though I interpret things a bit differently than he does). It seems those lovable, hard-working folks on the Canadian Heritage parliamentary committee are laying the groundwork to do to us with regards to intellectual content exactly what the entertainment industry wants to do to us with regards to music and video: nickel and dime us to death.
The long-running legal battle against file sharers and downloaders on the part of organizations like the RIAA and Canada's equivalent, the CRIA, is really a battle for control of the supply and distribution of content. While the development of digital technology has posed an unprecedented challenge to the entertainment industry's business model, it also provides an unprecedented opportunity in the form of DRM. Ostensibly the acronym stands for Digital Rights Management but it could as easily stand for Digital Restrictions Management. In whatever flavour it's implemented, the technology is designed to manage, as in limit, what you can do with the content you pay for.
In the entertainment industry's vision of the perfect future we would no longer buy content, we would only rent it. Embedded DRM technology in one form or another would limit our ability to transfer files, would put a cap on the number of copies we could make even for archival or backup purposes and in the long run, would even limit the number of times we could play or view a file. Along the way we would say goodbye to what Americans call "fair use" and Canadians call "exceptions". The public's rights are sacrificed on the altar of the industry's right to endless profits because ensuring the public's rights would allow the potential for some abuse. ("Freebies" is the way that Liberal MP Sarmite Bulte refers to that abuse and apparently freebies are so evil that they must be prevented at all costs. As long as it's the consumer who pays the costs.) We may not be all the way to that vision of the future yet but it's certainly not for lack of trying on the part of industry lobby groups (with more than a little help from Microsoft which, at the same time, would like to lock you into its proprietary file formats like Windows Media Player).
The Star article makes an important point:
... under Canadian patent law, inventors receive a limited monopoly over their invention that grants them exclusive authority over how that invention is used.
In return, the patent expires after a prescribed period at which time anyone may use the invention without prior authorization.
Moreover, obtaining patent protection also requires inventors to fully disclose and describe their invention so that the public obtains the immediate benefit of that knowledge.
The Canadian Supreme Court has affirmed a similar balance in copyright. Creators enjoy a basket of exclusive rights such as the sole right to reproduce or perform the work. In return, the term of copyright protection is limited so that expired work becomes part of the public domain and may be used by anyone without permission or payment.
What the article doesn't say is that patents and copyrights were created with the long term public interest in mind in the first place. That short-term monopoly was meant to provide the creators with an incentive to fully develop their ideas to a point where they were useful and valuable before they finally ended up in the public domain. But somewhere along the line the public interest faded from view and the monopoly became an end in itself. How old is Steamboat Willy anyway? Isn't it about time we let the old guy retire?
So with that discussion as background, just what has that parliamentary committee, chaired by Bulte, been up to?
It foresees, among other things, schools being required to pay for using, as course materials, Web-based information that is made publicly available ? often with the poster's intention of reaching as wide an audience as possible and with no expectation of payment.
The committee's recommendation for swift ratification of the controversial World Intellectual Property Organization's Internet treaties and increased liability for Internet service providers will rightly garner much attention. It is its approach to educational uses of the Internet, however, that are a particular cause for concern given the current financial strain on our schools.
The Canadian educational community has proposed what would appear to be a balanced solution in the form of establishing a limited educational user right to publicly available work on the Internet.
In keeping with longstanding and widely accepted practices on the Internet, publicly available work would include materials that are not technologically or password protected ? that is, information the author would appear to want to make widely available.
Bulte's committee surprisingly rejected the education community's proposal, opting instead for a new license to cover Internet based works. This new license would require schools to pay yet another fee (the education community already hands over millions in license fees each year for content) for works found on the Internet.
Although it acknowledges that some work on the Internet is intended to be freely available, the committee recommends the adoption of the narrowest possible definition of publicly available. Its vision of publicly-available includes only those works that are not technologically or password protected and contain an explicit notice that the material can be used without prior payment or permission.
Rather than adopting an approach that facilitates the use of the Internet, Bulte's committee has called for the creation of a restrictive regime in which nothing is allowed unless expressly permitted. The result will be an Internet in which schools will be required to pay to use Internet materials contrary to the expectations of many creators.
The committee is so intent on ensuring and enforcing the monopolization of content that it would do so even in circumstances where the creators themselves want the content freely distributed and without the expectation of payment. The control mechanism for its own sake has become more important than the rights and intentions of the owners, which is what copyright is supposed to protect. By taking "the narrowest possible definition" they ensure the commercialization of the content and of the internet. Commercialization becomes the default position and the public domain be damned because there's no balance here between the rights of copyright owners and the rights of the public.
As Ray at PolSpy pointed out, we don't need a new license. Here on the internet we have licenses that individual creators can tailor to their needs. Ray thinks this is an attempt on the government's part to control the flow of information but I'm not so sure. I think it's legislation by lobby group though the lobbyists may be disguised as consultants. What they're proposing here is a regime that maximizes the potential for profit and puts the users on the defensive. I think they're setting a precedent. The education market is big business. They'll come for the rest of us eventually. And I'll bet the next step is some form of DRM to allow more control of access to information. Do you realize that right now you can save a web page to your hard drive and view it off-line? I wonder how long that'll last.
And this is a committee operating in the name of Canadian Heritage.
This has been Monday night geek blogging because being paranoid doesn't necessarily mean they're not out to get you.