Review: Canadian Copyright – A Citizen’s Guide

200902012349.jpgFull disclosure, up front: I’m reviewing Canadian Copyright – A Citizen’s Guide (published through Between the Lines) as part of the Mini Book Expo. Now, on to the review…

Canadians are inundated with news about copyright on a regular basis. Where copyright was once a little spoken of technical subfield of law, it has blossomed into a vibrant and relevant facet of Canadian cultural discourse. Unfortunately, such discourse is often clouded by the ‘facts’ of copyright that accompany vast swathes of American media that is projected into Canada; discussions of fair use, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and the definitions of copyright infringement are regularly grounded in American legal statutes. This book offers itself as an accessible panacea that promises to reorient popular discussions of copyright in Canada.

The text is neatly divided into four parts; Ideas, Law, Practice, and Policy. I’ll address each in turn, noting what I appreciated, and what I found lacking (where appropriate). Given that I spend a little bit of time reading and thinking about copyright, I’ll scatter some comments through the review.

Part I – Ideas

This section of the book is meant to give some background to copyright today. It begins by broadly distinguishing between natural rights-based and utilitarian arguments for the value of intellectual property broadly, and copyright specifically. At the same time, the authors recognize copyright as a means to make non-exclusive property (i.e. ideas) exclusive property; copyright functions to cordon off particular ‘things’ from the public. With this theory behind them, they delve into the history of Canadian copyright by examining the traditions of Britain, the United States (US), and France – copyright law in Canada is found at the crossing of these various legal traditions. While the historical basis of copyright often find themselves into texts on the subject, even elementary theory is often hidden from view – the authors should be congratulated for even taking a stab at the theory behind copyright. Given that the book is meant for a general audience, it’s hard to fault them for not digging into the theory too deeply.

Part II – Laws

Murray’s and Trosow’s explication of the laws surrounding copyright are simultaneously rigorous, relatively nuanced, and (perhaps most importantly) accessible. After providing a quick overview of broad elements of copyright (e.g. you copyright expressions, not ideas or facts; copyright is distinguished from trademarks, etc.), they get into what content owners can do with their IP, discussing public performance, first publication, translation, conversion, public communication, exhibition, rental, authorization, and moral rights (as a note, moral rights lack a clear parallel in the US). The granular division of different owners’ rights constitutes the first full division of various rights afforded by Canadian copyright, in clear language, that I’ve found.

This is followed by a discussion of different modes of copyright ownership, and subsequently an explication of users’ rights. What is arguably the most important part of this explication (and likely for the book as well) is the clear discussion of the fair dealing exception. While most Canadians are likely familiar with the term “fair use“, “fair dealing” is the much more limited Canadian ‘version’ of the American law. If you read nothing else in the text, this chapter is essential so that you can understand what you cannot do in Canada, and remain protected by law. This part concludes with a quick discussion of how owners can actually enforce their rights.

Part III – Practice

Constituting the largest section of the book, the authors try to cover all of the various ‘things’ that might become embroiled in copyright law, from crafts, to Digital Rights Management (DRM), to music, to libraries and museums, to the Web, and so forth. For academics, what is probably most interesting is the discussion of Access licenses (most university libraries notify visitors that works are protected under Access licenses using large posters beside photocopiers and scanners) – it quickly becomes apparent that the authors have little love for these licenses and throughout this section, and the following one on policy, they note problems with the licensing scheme.

While the authors nicely divide this section of the book between the various practices that are implicated in copyright, I was disappointed to see so little time actually spent on copyright as it pertained to the Internet. Arguably, it is only because the line between content producer and consumer has been blurred, and because rapid, simple, and cheap/free distribution technologies are available, that copyright has become such a big deal for the Canadian public. Without the ‘net, quite simply, copyright would likely have remained a dull technical facet of law that few were interested in. Given that I see this books as dominantly produced for individuals who are participating in (or thinking about participating in) blurring lines between content producers and consumers, and that these people are likely taking advantage of the web to at distribute their works, it seems that spending more than six (!) pages on ‘the Web’ was needed.

While I might not be able to just copy an image and host it on my blog, what does it mean if I hotlink to it? Is this a form of infringement? What if, when clicking the image, you are taken to the hosting site? Do I need to specifically attribute images to sources, or is linking enough? These are very real questions for the Web 2.0 crowd, and these readers are left to their own devices in trying to apply previous discussions of copyright practices to the Web.

Part IV – Policy

Here we have an introduction to different economies of copyright, which include Aboriginal cultural property protocols, copyleft, citation economies, and public funding. The first is distinctly Canadian, and revealed to me that there is a whole range of copyright rules that I was entirely ignorant of. Copyleft briefly touches on copyright regimes such as GPL and the Creative Commons, and citation economies are largely those used by academics to reference texts, and bloggers to reference their sources.

The last item, public funding, integrates with the final chapter (‘The Future of Copyright’) and the text more broadly in an interesting, if somewhat paradoxical, way. In essence, the authors maintain that when the Government of Canada pays for items using taxpayer funds, those expressions should be licensed for the public; it makes no sense for Canadians to pay to produce content on the CBC, and then almost $200/second of video for using publicly produced video for derivative expressions. I have to admit that I’m incredibly sympathetic to this position. At one point in the text, Murray and Trosow write, “publicly funded work ought to be widely available” (198).

Both authors are academics in Canada – Murray at Queen’s, and Trosow at Western – and in Murray’s case she received federal funds through the Social Science and Humanities review Council (SSHRC). While preaching open access, the published book retains a standard copyright. Despite the injection of federal dollars, and despite the fact that Between the Lines has received assistance from federal and provincial grants, the book is held within a standard copyright ‘lock’. In effect, academics (and presumably others who receive government funding) should do as Murray and Trosow say, but not as they do. I don’t begrudge either of the authors of this (they note in the book that academics are regularly forced to accept copyright terms that are out of alignment with their beliefs), but at the same time this disparity must be noted. The book that concludes with ideas for progressive copyright reform, really begins (and in a sense legally ‘ends’) with traditionally restrictive copyright.

Ultimately, I would rate this book highly (4/5) for its accessibility and general clarity. It’s failure to wholeheartedly engage with ‘The Web’ was incredibly disconcerting and disappointing; this deficiency is what significantly weakens the book. Without a mention of Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, or other popular Web 2.0 digital environments, I worry that this text is a good primer for copyright generally (and thus achieves its aim in educating the public about some nuances of Canadian copyright) while simultaneously missing out on the spaces where Canadians most need their citizen’s guide. Moreover, its failure to actively practice what it preaches dilutes the authors’ credibility, which is a shame given their clear passion for copyright reform in Canada.