Are paywalls a Copyright issue?

We should answer the question of whether a paywall is a copyright issue, before we dive into the question of the importance of this question for the debate around the Paracopyright provisions in Bill C-11.

I am familiar with paywalls from the perspective of both a user and a provider of such services. I will offer two specific examples of paywalls to illustrate the issues.

I have been a paid subscriber to The Hill Times since 2005. This is an example of a service that offers some access to anonymous browsers on the Internet, but offers advanced services (full access to search through considerable archives, access to all new articles, etc) only to paid subscribers. You use a simple username and password to log in to prove you are a subscribe.

My current job is as a software author and system administrator for Canadiana.org. We offer anonymous access to some content, while other content is only available to paid subscribers. All the content is in the public domain, so copyright isn't relevant to our service. What is being paid for is access to this content as a method to fund the work we do in digitizing and organizing this information. We have individual and institutional subscribers, with individual users able to subscribe quickly making use of a simple PayPal payment system. While institutional subscribers are given access based on their internet address, individual subscribers use a simple username and password to indicate they are a subscriber.

These two services equally use of a paywall to differentiate between anonymous access and subscribers. While The Hill Time is offering access to copyrighted works, Canadian.org is not. From a legal standpoint these paywalls should be treated the same, with each being offered the same level of legal protection against people who might want to gain unauthorized access to our services.

There has been suggestions from some people that paywalls are inadequately legally protected in Canada. This is often being claimed by proponents of the Paracopyright ("digital locks") provisions in Bill C-11. I don't know for certain whether paywalls are offered adequate legal protection under existing Canadian federal or provincial laws, including whether existing criminal code is sufficient.

I will state that the Copyright act is exactly the wrong law to provide this legal protection. It would make very bad law if legal protection for a paywall was dependent on the specifics of what is offered behind the paywall rather than protecting all paywalls equally and fairly. While I agree with the suggestion that paywalls should be offered legal protection, it must be in the correct law.

While it is true that some copyright holders make use of paywalls in support of their businesses, it is also true that even more copyright holders use electricity in support of their businesses. Suggesting that legal protection for paywalls must be in C-11 makes about as much sense as suggesting that a national energy strategy must also be included in Bill C-11.

The question of whether paywalls are a copyright question came up in a twitter conversation where a proponent of Bill C-11 style Paracopyright was trying to be critical of Postmedia for considering paywalls. He was trying to suggest this conflicted with other articles on the Globe and Mail which were critical of the Paracopyright provisions of Bill C-11.

I hope it is obvious that there is no conflict with supporting, subscribing to or even providing paywall services and being strongly opposed to the Paracopyright provisions of Bill C-11. My primary motivation for my involvement in the copyright revision process is as an opponent to abuses of these provisions to infringe owners rights which Paracopyright provisions may enable.

Trying to conflate different issues like this is a common political tactic of those trying to promote these provisions. They take a non-controvercial technology like paywalls, claim that this is all that is meant by "technological measures" or "digital locks" in C-11, and then try to shove under the rug all the opposition to these highly controversial measures.

What most stakeholders are asking for is that any Paracopyright contained within Canadian copyright law should be tied strongly to otherwise copyright infringing acts. This is what the two 1996 WIPO treaties were calling for, given they are tied to "technological measures that are used by authors in connection with the exercise of " copyright related rights "that restrict acts, in respect of their works, which are not authorized by the authors concerned or permitted by law".

The further protection for "technological measures" added to copyright law strays from copyright infringing activities, the easier it is for providers of these technologies (the holders of the keys to these "digital locks") can abuse these provisions to circumvent laws including (but not limited to) contract, e-commerce, property, competition, trade as well as copyright.

One really has to wonder the motivation of those who want legal protection for "technological measures" added to copyright law to have little or no connection to otherwise copyright infringing activities. In some cases it is a lack of understanding of the underlying technology.

In some cases there may be ulterior motives. Some companies may want their circumvention of existing laws protected by beyond-WIPO Paracopyright provisions. There are some popular hardware brands in the game console, cell phone and other mobile computing space which have been outright hostile to the property rights of technology owners. Some of the representatives of these hardware manufacturers, including some representatives of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, have made some of the most extreme claims.

(Note: This article was also published on my personal blog)