Canada is on the Verge of Legislating Itself into a Global Disadvantage

01 Oct

On September 29th, the Canadian government introduced Bill C-11, An Act to Amend the Copyright Act. I have read several news reports in the last few days about Bill C-11, most of which were extremely positive. On the surface, it does seem like a fair Bill that will modernize copyright law. Unfortunately, largely because of the inclusion of digital lock provisions, it is a step back for education.

This summer, Neil Andersen and I wrote the following letter to send to our Members of Parliament. We have decided to make it available to raise awareness of this important issue:

Dear Member of Parliament,

I have some very serious concerns about the ramifications of Bill C-11, An Act to Amend the Copyright Act, and I hope that I can count on your support. Canadian copyright law is a site of struggle between business, civic and personal interests. Teachers are concerned about how to comply with current regulations, and many of us are worried about what further restrictions may come. I fear that Canada is on the verge of legislating itself into a global disadvantage. The government’s proposed copyright legislation will weaken Canadians’ competitive abilities because it will prevent students from learning effective 21st century thinking and communication skills. The consequences of Bill C-11 could be dire.

Imagine if teachers were prohibited from reading Shakespeare out loud in the classroom, or if students were prohibited from performing a scene from a play. What if they were unable to re-write a scene in modern language? What if they were unable to use a quote in their essays? These rich learning activities are practiced in classrooms across Canada, but the inclusion of a digital lock provision in the government’s proposed copyright legislation would make them illegal when applied to a digital text.

Students and teachers need to be able to manipulate material being studied. They need to be able to adapt it, mash it up and remix it, to take it apart and make it their own in order to truly understand how it works. Digital locks will make the study of media texts difficult in many cases and impossible in others.

In the United States, fair use copyright rules are far more lenient. Yet the US government, led by business interests, seeks to impose restrictions on Canadians that are not applicable to its own people and public institutions. This poses an incredible danger for our autonomy as a country, for the future of our students, and therefore all Canadians. I am particularly concerned about the discrepancies between “fair use” (US) and “fair dealing” (Canada). Here are just a few examples:

  1. In the US, a teacher can screen a film (or part) in class without permission or payment. In Canada, this fair use is not permitted.
  1. Fair dealing in the US means that teachers may copy portions of any work, including a work on the Internet, and post these works on restricted-access websites for students. In Canada, this fair dealing is not permitted.
  1. In the US, photocopying portions of a work for use in class, including full class sets, is fair use. In Canada, photocopying class sets requires payments (to the tune of $26.9 million in 2003). Such costs will become increasingly punishing as education budgets shrink and will prevent students from gaining access to current, relevant materials. Canadian teachers realize that it is unfair to textbook publishers to copy an entire work, but teachers need to be able to use portions of works in addition to the main (purchased) texts, specifically from websites, magazines and trade books.

Aside from these differences, there are some points in Bill C-11 that are quite strong. The danger occurs in the section on digital locks.  The phrasing of the digital lock legislation would allow any producer to decide what can and cannot be accessed. The existence of a digital lock overrides all permissions and fair dealing provisions, so even the modest gains made for education would be reversed.

According to our excellent curriculum documents, students must study a wide range of texts. A “text” is defined as “a means of communication that uses words, graphics, sounds and/or images to convey information and ideas to an audience” (Ontario Curriculum Grades 11 and 12, English, p.4). Shakespeare may very well be in the public domain, but with a digital lock, it would be difficult if not impossible to study how his works are adapted for today’s audiences, which is essential for an understanding of his timeless appeal. If you begin to think about the wide range of texts—from plays to television, movies, music, videogames, the internet and more—you begin to see how restrictive and limiting, how shallow our study of media would be without a real fair use educational exemption.

Please apprise me of your position on the following issues:

  1. Are you willing to work to achieve legislation that allows fair use, i.e., instant and easy access to a wide range of current and popular media texts?
  1. Are you willing to work to achieve legislation that allows teachers to break digital locks so that students can modify, parody and/or deconstruct texts to learn how they communicate?
  1. Are you willing to work to achieve legislation that allows special education teachers to break digital locks on texts so that they can modify them to make them accessible to their special needs students?

To remain competitive globally, Canadian students need to be knowledgeable and skilled at understanding and creating the many and varied media messages that are in their home, government, legal and—especially—business environments.

That means that students must have current, real-world texts to read and create.  Canada has gone to great effort and expense to provide students with up-to-date hardware, software and Internet access.  To limit student learning now would undo the benefits those measures have produced.

Thank you for taking the time to consider these intellectual property issues. Canada’s global competitiveness hangs in the balance. I look forward to your response and am eager to read how you will protect and promote students’ rights.


Ms. Solomon

For more information and excellent analysis about Canada's proposed copyright legislation, please visit Michael Geist's Blog. Mr. Geist has a wonderful post up about the cherry picking of information about this Bill.

The Canadian Federation of Students also issued a news release on the subject.

Update: Oct 2, read Mr. Geist's Toronto Star article in which he states, "digital lock rules...  trump education rights."