Should copyright law lock down music and literature to protect the financial interests of rights-holders? Or should it promote broad access to, and use of, intellectual goods? These questions are at the core of the growing public debate over the need for fair and balanced copyright law, a debate that college and university students have a critical stake in.
As creators and owners of copyright material (essays, articles, theses and multi-media productions), students need to protect their work from unjust appropriation. But to study, research, write and create new knowledge, students also need ready access, at a reasonable cost, to the copyrighted works of others. This tri-part perspective-of use, creation and ownership of copyright-gives students special credibility in the struggle for fair and balanced copyright law.
Intellectual property is a legal concept governing the ownership and use of goods created by intellectual labour. Copyright is the intellectual property sub-category that protects expressive “works”, including literary, dramatic, artistic and musical creations.
The Canadian Copyright Act gives copyright owners a bundle of economic rights (including the rights to publish, reproduce, exhibit or perform a work) and to creators a series of moral rights (including rights to protect the integrity of a work, to be associated or not associated with a work, and to preserve an author’s honour and reputation in relation to a work).
Copyright is infringed when someone, without the consent of the copyright owner, does something with a work that only the owner of the work has the right to do. People found liable for infringing an owner’s copyright are subject to a variety of financial penalties. The Act protects the public interest by limiting the duration of the copyright term (generally to the life of the author plus fifty years, after which the work enters the public domain), allowing certain exceptions to what would otherwise be infringement (for example, permitting the transfer of copyrighted works to formats accessible to visually impaired persons) and through fair dealing (the right to use works without permission in various circumstances).
Copyright Act Reform
In the early 2000s the federal government began a round of copyright reform aimed at addressing developments in digital information technology. Advances in this technology have disrupted the traditional operation of the Copyright Act, simultaneously creating opportunities for complete copyright control by corporate rights-owners as well as mass, illegal, instantaneous duplication by commercial pirates. More subtly the new technology has also enhanced the ability of copyright users to become creators in their own right; breaking down old distinctions between creator and user, between broadcaster and audience, and even between educator and learner.
Good public policy must therefore ensure that digital technology protects the legitimate copyright interests of creators (artists, writers, musicians, researchers) and prevents copyright owners from using new technologies to restrict reasonable access to, and use of, information resources. Unfortunately, copyright policy in Canada has long been dominated by commercial interests who reject such balance. Canada continues to be under intense pressure from the U.S. government and the international entertainment industry to grant sweeping new protections to rights-holders. In particular, successive Canadian governments have been urged to adopt a version of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a controversial piece of legislation that locks down digital data.
In a break with tradition, a groundswell of grassroots opposition has prevented the federal government from bowing to this corporate pressure. A new generation of activists from the general public and specific groups such as students, teachers, consumers, librarians and even sectors of the business community has stopped the Copyright Act from being tipped further in favour of commercial rights holders at the expense of the public interest. While this is a great victory, the struggle now is moving from a defensive position to one from which actual improvements to the Act can be demanded. As users, creators, and owners of copyrighted works, students are well-placed to play a prominent role in the struggle for balanced copyright law.
If you would like to be involved in this or any other campaign, please join the GSU External Relations Committee by contacting your Director of Communications.