Informal dialog on C-11 at Carleton University

On the evening of March 6, 2012 I attended an informal dialogue about bill C-11 at Oliver’s Pub, Carleton University. It was organized by School of Information Technology Associate Professor Ali Arya, who invited MPs from the C-11 legislative committee, Tamir Israel from the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), and myself as guests to talk to students and faculty at Carleton. Hon. Geoff Regan, the Liberal MP on the committee, and Liberal Senator Wilfred Moore attended.

I have been observing Mr. Regan in action for the last few weeks in committee. He gave everyone insights about the process up to that point, what we can expect, and what he hopes for. As you can expect, some of us who have been focused on this area of policy for some time can get quite excited in discussions. Mr. Regan jumped in and was not only the guest of honour, he also filled the role of moderator.

I found some of the comments and questions from students to be very insightful. Much has changed since I was a student, and these changes have impacts related to copyright.

(Note: Some discussion via G+ posting by Michael Richardson)

I started as a student in the Bachelor of Computer Science program (hardware specialty) at Carleton University in 1987. While we had to pay for expensive textbooks, just as students did today, I do not remember software ever being an issue. Computing facilities were largely provided on-campus, and we were exposed to a variety of computing platforms including a variety of Unix workstations, Lisa and Macintosh computers, as well as DOS and Windows. There was no imposition from the school on what computing choices students made for their own equipment. I came to Ottawa in 1987 as an Amiga owner (I became the Commodore Authorized repair person for Eastern Ontario in the late 1980's), upgraded my Amiga computers to run NetBSD, and then around 1993 moved to the Linux operating system running on Intel computers. I have offered commercial support for Linux and other server-side Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) since.

On Tuesday the students spoke about how they are told that in order to get jobs they need to become proficient in specific brands and versions of software. They are often using their own computing facilities, and were told to acquire this software themselves. While there are student versions offered for free or at a discount, they still spoke of prices of hundreds of dollars for specific software packages -- and that was the discounted price.

While I had freedom of choice, and I chose to reject the proprietary software route, these students don't seem to have been offered that freedom. Very expensive software is added on top of the still expensive textbooks. While some students have the money, for many this simply increases the already crippling debt load from students. For some students they have no choice but to acquire this software in less than legitimate means.

When hearing this, I don't see infringement as something caused by the students. They are not given a choice about what software to use, with this being imposed on them. There are external forces, largely coming from the proprietary software industry itself, that are inducing these infringements. If we are to take the same logic as some at committee were of wanting to go after those who enable or induce infringement, we need to be looking at the proprietary software sector as the source of the problem. This is simply not something we can blame on these students.

It was frustrating to hear all this talk of expensive royalty-based software at Carleton. Outside of North America there is a move to adopting legally free FLOSS options in educational environments. There may be examples where the FLOSS software doesn't offer the identical features as a proprietary competitor, but the educational environment is the perfect place to encourage students to experience real-world software development by participating in existing large software projects to add any missing features. This is experience they could never obtain by being a largely passive user of proprietary software.

Even here, this lesser educational experience links back to the proprietary software sector: we have seen how the Business Software Alliance has, through the IIPA, manipulated the USA's "Special 301 process" to critique countries who have embraced the financial, educational, accountability and transparency benefits of FLOSS. Their participation in IIPAs copyright lobbying is not at all about reducing copyright infringement, but preferring increases in copyright infringement over people switching to legal competitors.

I don't consider educational institutional exceptions to be a "solution" to this problem, and in fact believe that would make the problem worse. Unlike the BSA/IIPA, I believe that legally free is better than illegally free: while students are at school as well as later in life. We need to ensure that these options aren't disabled by government and are allowed in the educational environment.

Government must offer students software choice, which in the context of bill C-11 means rejecting technological measures which would tie students to specific computing platforms (IE: no technological measures on content or software part of curriculum/etc). Government must also disallow technological measures to be applied to devices by anyone other than its owner.

If schools had to supply the software for students it would provide incentives for the institutions to modernize the curriculum to embrace legally free software. Telling students they must use specific brands of software, and then having students acquire that software on their own, is simply creating the environment to induce copyright infringement. It is not the place of our educational institutions to be teaching students to infringe copyright.

The same problem exists with textbooks. Internationally there is a movement to using Open Access publishing methods where educational authors are paid once (and often far better than they would through a royalty system), with the resulting educational material available to be distributed royalty-free to students, lawfully shared and collaborated on with other schools, and so-on. This is a much better system for non-fiction educational publishing, but unfortunately Canada appears to also be a laggard on this modernization.

The students spoke about Steam, a system which allows them easy access to video games. They spoke about how making legal options easily available is the best way to combat copyright infringement.

This echoed what many of us have been saying for years: something not being legally available (on the devices they own, in the country they live in, etc) has a far greater impact on the revenues of copyright holders than copyright infringement. While some copyright holders claim the sky is falling (with little credible evidence of this), trying to blame the problem on audiences and other third parties, there is so much more copyright holders could be doing to increase their own revenues.

Greater enforcement is not a solution: making creative works available in ways that people will want to easily purchase is the solution.

There was a little conversation with a musician about technological measures. I wish we had time to chat in person a bit more. I truly believe that once individual creators have looked at all the components of how real-world technological measures are used in the context of copyright, they will understand and agree that these measures are harmful to the interests of copyright holders and technology owners (with most of us being both).

A different student spoke about wanting to make modifications to software licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). As someone who has been in this sector for more than two decades now, and have consulted to various clients on FLOSS licensing issues, I can help. Please get in touch if someone reading this knows the name of the student who was asking.

There are also law clinics attached to many schools who can offer quick advise on things such as these.

FLOSS licenses are far easier to read than your typical End User License Agreement (EULA) from proprietary software. It only seems more complex because the answer to whether you can do something interesting with software under a EULA is often NO, while with FLOSS licenses the answer is often YES (but under specific conditions). Once you have read and understood the most popular FLOSS licenses, that knowledge will apply to millions of software packages, while many EULA's are unique to a specific version of a specific program distributed in a specific country.