Re: Heading back to school? Hope you’ve memorized the Copyright Act

The following was written as a response to an opinion piece by John Degen, where a shortform was submitted and published as a letter to the editor.

The underlying premise of John Degen’s article is sound. The Canadian Copyright act is excessively complex. With the tools to create and distribute creativity now in the hands (and pockets) of most students, the problem is getting worse as activities which many reasonably consider lawful are actually considered infringements under our outdated Copyright law. It is so bad that lawyers who are (or claim to be) copyright experts often disagree about what the current law says, so it is entirely unreasonable for students and professors to understand it.

This complexity and lack of clarity will induce students to infringe Copyright.

Any modernization of the Copyright Act should take clarification and simplification as the primary goals. This is a lens that other policy proposals should be looked at through, with governments rejecting proposals that simply make Copyright more complex without some considerable demonstrable benefit to the relevant rights-holder.

While all of this is true, the policies promoted by Access Copyright and Mr. Degen as a individual have been in the opposite direction. During consultations on the most recent Act to amend the Copyright Act (Bill C-32) they spoke out against those ideas that would clarify and simplify copyright (such as the expansion of Fair Dealing), and either said nothing or were in support of those ideas that would make Copyright even more complex (such as the addition of ParaCopyright, or so-called anti-circumvention law).

Mr Degen seems to like to confuse people about what is locked, and who hold the keys to what is locked. These so-called “locked” content databases are no more “locked down” than the book store and/or library, and going through these services to access Canadian content makes the rules far simpler. The rules will be similar whether in or out of the classroom, or whether we are talking text, music, movies or software. This simplification is not radical as alleged by Mr. Degen, but long overdue for Canadian educational institutions!

It is simply a bad policy all around to have Copyright rules be different in the classroom than it is outside, which is the primary policy Access Copyright is promoting. Blanket licensing may “protect” students from claims of infringement in the classroom, but won’t protect them from these claims outside the classroom. We also have to remember that Access Copyright represents the very copyright holders who would be seeking to sue students in their homes and in schools in the first place.

It is equally wrong to have institutional exceptions to copyright, which is something that the Council of Ministers of Education have been asking for. This short-sighted proposal is effectively a government funding program paid for on the backs of authors which will not only harm authors, but also harm students through mis-educating them about how Copyright will impact their lifelong activities.

We have some problems to deal with in relation to copyright and the classroom. An important step will be to recognize that the licensing model that Access Copyright seeks to impose on institutions is a big part of the problem, not part of the solution.