Copyright turmoil: freedom of speech trumping protection arguments (except in Canada?)

It’s been a busy few weeks for copyright policy around the world, hasn’t it? Latvia, Poland the Czech Republic and – isn’t this something – now Germany have refused to sign the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), although Germany is only saying it won’t sign it right now. In Canada, the Harper Conservatives have moved to close debate on their copyright bill, C-11, moving it to committee, where Michael Geist reports that content-industry groups will attempt to strengthen it even further. And I think there was some small event in the United States, where Wikipedia turned off the Internet or something, which led to the scuttling of the House Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate Protect IP Act.

Protests online, protests in the streets, and successful protests at that. What’s going on? And (being a bit parochial) what does it mean for Canada?

Doubtlessly, the protests’ success is the result of many factors, including the structural vulnerability of governments to protests and the example, for Europe, of the SOPA protests, but I’d like to highlight one in particular. Namely:

Protesters have managed to reframe copyright reform as a debate about freedom of speech, not protection of property. For decades, the dominant take on copyright has been that increased protection was necessary to promote creative production. (Whether this is actually true is another matter entirely.) However, as we saw last year in Mexico – whose Senate rejected ACTA before rejecting ACTA was cool – this position can be successfully challenged by some core ideals that also lie at the heart of copyright law, namely that it should promote the public dissemination of knowledge and culture.

While this duality has always been present in copyright, the spectre of kneecapping the Internet – something that millions, if not billions, of people now depend on for their day-to-day lives – at the service of a small, politically powerful segment of society offered a vivid illustration of this protection/dissemination tradeoff. Over the long term, this reframing has the potential to change drastically the direction of copyright law.

(For the political science wonks in the crowd: this is a prime example of how, within an historical-institutionalist framework, agents can exploit conflicting paradigmatic ideas embodied in an institution to effect radical, yet path-dependent change without resorting to “this changes everything” punctuated-equilibrium explanations. Now, back to human-speak.)

As for Canada, well, critics have their work cut out for themselves. When copyright first showed up on the public agenda back in December 2007, the Harper Conservatives were uniquely vulnerable: a minority government, facing an opposition of unknown strength (spoiler alert: the Liberals were all yelp, no bite) and a contentious vote on continuing the war in Afghanistan. Faced with direct and unexpected public opposition, they tabled the bill and eventually held public consultations.

Despite this back-down and some small reforms the Conservatives have consistently supported a hard-line approach on the legal protection of digital locks, which were always at the heart of public opposition to the Conservative copyright bills. Now, Harper and the Conservatives have a majority government, four years to go until the next election, and a “just-enough” electoral strategy of microtargeting specific ridings and groups, ignoring everyone else. Even with critics’ (not entirely unfounded) attempts to link Bill C-11 with the SOPA and ACTA debates, it’s hard to see what it would take to change the government’s mind on this issue. That isn’t stopping people from planning in-the-street protests and an online petition.

In all, it’s just another reminder that copyright treaties may be global, but copyright politics are local.

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