Embrace the net, or how Michael Geist says the proposed new law is all copywrong

24 01 2010

Finally, a reason to be glad for the prorogation of Parliament. At the January meeting of the Canadian Author’s Association, Dr. Michael Geist, law professor at the University of Ottawa, where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, discussed C-61, the proposed copyright law. At first overview, it seems not to have protected copyright for authors at all, but rather restricted access to works everywhere. It died when Parliament did. Dr. Geist feels this was a very  good thing.

Geist argues that creators and users of information are the same people. All of us “google” information, many of us use Open Office and Wikipedia, and I know I am addicted to the new NFB library and Open Culture.

C-61 concerned itself with little things like: preventing you to move your cell phone service to another company; permitting software sampling your interests for research to be placed on movies and CDs; requiring professors to destroy on-line classes after one month; restricting access to other items to five days; and assigning blame to those who infringe the many complicated rules, banning them from the internet after three such crimes and no due process. It meant that reader software could not be used for the blind, requiring them to purchase the more expensive audio books. Mashups would be out of order, and archiving would be a nightmare of rules and exceptions.

None of this seems particularly helpful to us as writers. As Cory Doctorow pointed out, it isn’t piracy that is the enemy, it’s obscurity. All of us toiling in our various book and paper strewn offices want to be read, want to share our vision with someone, or else we would not seek to publish our writings. It seems counterproductive to want this on one hand, and deny all access on the other.

Geist went on to encourage us to “embrace the Net”. He talked about the various open access sites available now, and how they were helping collaboration and innovation. Open Medicine, for example, was started by doctors who felt that where the public funds research, the results should be open to the public. Now we all can wander through the various research studies, finding unusual disorders and novel ways to kill off our characters, without having to pay for this access.

There are different types of people who react to digital information given free.  There are the ones that use it free and wander about in glee. This does represent a decrease in sales of the item. Another group use the digital versions to determine if they want the hard copy. He described a university book publisher that put the entire text of a heavily academic book online. Initially they were afraid this would result in reduced sales – but they were pleasantly surprised when sales went up.  People who never would have bought the book or known of its existence were able to find it online and decided to buy all 700 pages of it to take home.

Geist feels that fair dealing, the sharing of information with users, should be expanded.  Currently, the law is a series of enumerated categories – if you are not in a given category, you’re not part of the deal.  Satire and parody are not protected under fair dealing – which places many at risk of being sued for copyright infringement.

Fair dealing does not mean free dealing, says Geist. There should not be a blanket exception for educators to pull materials off of the internet, for example.  Multiple copying or commercial uses should not be free. However, using a website in the classroom should be. He encouraged us to help define fair dealing in a way that was fair for both creators and users.

Of course, most of this is moot, with the prorogation of Parliament, but copyright law is eternally being revised. The pressures now are to match the US and Europe in their copyright arrangements, a delicate dance orchestrated by big players like big pharma up in the stratosphere. It’s doubtful we can have much of an effect on the opinions of such heavily pocketed groups.

Geist encouraged authors to focus on contracts, instead, especially those where publishers want authors to surrender all rights. Now, in this multiple-access world, this is even more unwise, and there is scope for authors to resist these contracts, and negotiate a better arrangement.

Geist also recommends that we encourage and prioritize digitalization.  Google is developing a monopoly on this, and it could result in a lack of multicultural input on what is digitalized. Canada should start its own digitalization project to ensure a diversity of voices in the new digital future.

Dr. Geist has an excellent (if a bit impenetrable for non-lawyers) website: www.michaelgeist.ca that includes a blog about the latest in copyright law.  It’s well worth a look.

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