Readers of this blog (if any…) will know that I am a Montreal Canadiens fan. A fan of the team from a very young age, I was fortunate in my adulthood to live in Montreal for more than 10 years. One of the benefits of living in your team’s city is the increased coverage of the team in the local media. In my case, that meant a 7-day-per-week subscription to The Gazette. I was always an avid newspaper reader anyway and found in my travels across Canada, from St. John’s to Halifax to Montreal (and now to Gatineau), that the best way to get to know your new city is to read the local paper.
Of course, when I left Montreal, I stopped my subscription to The Gazette. However, I was fortunate to find that The Gazette had started a blog on the Canadiens called Hockey Inside/Out (originally Habs Inside/Out before the team nixed that name), so I could continue to enjoy sportswriters like Dave Stubbs, Mike Boone, Red Fisher, Pat Hickey and others. HI/O linked to Gazette stories, as well as to other media outlets and blogs.
So all was well until one day, not too long ago, when I clicked a link to a Gazette article only to find that it was blocked by a pop-up that read, in part:
“You have five free articles remaining for this 30 day period. Register now for free if you are a subscriber to The Gazette print edition. If you are a non-print edition subscriber, subscribe now to get continuing and unlimited access to montrealgazette.com. As an online subscriber you will have full access to content, videos, galleries and more — anytime, anywhere and on any device.”
I had hit a paywall. Not surprisingly, my first reaction was annoyance. However, what did surprise me a little was how quickly that reaction was replaced by a “Well, it was good while it lasted”-type acceptance. After all, I had been reading newspaper columnists that I had once paid a monthly subscription fee to access, for free. How long could I have reasonably expected that to last? And it seems that more and more newspapers are deciding that advertising is just not bringing in enough revenue to keep online access free. (See here for a summary.)
Anyway, my reaction got me to thinking about my feelings towards another long-standing fight in the online world – that between artists and those who would illegally download or copy their music. Canada is in the process of updating its copyright legislation, and most agree this is long overdue. However, the current attempt (Bill C-11), as well as similar past attempts that died on the order paper because of elections (such as Bill C-32), have come in for criticism, particularly for their “digital lock” provisions. (See this CBC story for a good, brief summary of the recent history of Canadian copyright reform and the provisions of the current legislation.)
Briefly, “digital lock,” also known as DRM (digital rights management), refers to electronically encoding a media file so that it cannot be copied. The main objection raised by those who oppose the digital lock provisions is that they trump all other rights in the legislation. For example (to quote from the CBC story),
“If passed in its current form, the Copyright Modernization Act will allow Canadians to copy content from one device to another, such as from a CD to a computer or an iPod. This provision, however, does not apply to content protected by a digital lock, which is any technological measure, such as encryption or digital signatures, that rights holders use to restrict access to or prevent the copying or playing of CDs, DVDs, e-books, digital files and other material.” (Italics mine)
In other words, activities which the law will explicitly allow will still be impossible if the media is protected by a digital lock, and circumventing that lock, even if it’s for an otherwise legal purpose, will be illegal. If you want to delve deeper into these issues, University of Ottawa law professor Dr. Michael Geist has written extensively on the subject (and is definitely worth reading at www.michaelgeist.ca, or @mgeist on Twitter).
In reading Dr. Geist’s comments and those of other commentators, I have noticed something interesting. Almost all of the comments are written from the perspective of the consumer, and most seem to originate from a point of view that we should be able to do what we want with the media we buy/download, unless the intent is clearly criminal. To quote Dr. Geist (from the CBC story):
“Where you’ve got someone who circumvents a lock with the intent of burning 1,000 copies and selling them on a street corner, absolutely the law ought to target that. But where we’re talking about the consumer who wants to play the DVD they’ve purchased in Europe or in Asia, or the student who wants to make use of the electronic book on their laptop, or the journalist who wants to use a clip out of a DVD for a news report or the teacher who wants to do a multimedia presentation, it seems to me that the law currently says they have those rights, and those shouldn’t be lost just because there is a digital lock on the content.”
What you see little of in the debate, however, is the point of view of the individual artist/rights holder. And that’s odd, as that (to me) is the most important viewpoint. It is their work we are talking about. They have expended the time and effort (and money) to produce a work that they want to sell. It seems to me that their wishes should be paramount.
I know that Dr. Geist and others have argued that these digital locks will not help the music industry (often noted by supports of the legislation as one of its benefits). In fact, a recent address by Dr. Geist was entitled “Why Copyright Reform Is Not the Cure for What Ails the Music Industry.” However, I find these arguments miss the point. The real question is what should the artist be permitted to do to protect his/her work? Looked at from that point of view, is a digital lock unreasonable? In a way, modern technology presents a way to right a historical wrong. I’m old enough to remember buying LPs with the little message “Home taping is killing music” in the corner of the back of the cover. And whether or not it was really killing music was, again, beside the point. The point was that, when I made a copy of my LP on cassette and gave it to my friend, the artist potentially lost a sale, and they had no control over that.
Ultimately, I’m talking about nothing more or less than the artist’s control of their work. If, like Radiohead, they want to put their new album on their website and let people pay what they want (even if that amount is $0), that’s their decision. It may even be the smartest decision. But if I’m the artist, I think I should make that decision, not someone else. After all, what is the point of copyright law if not to protect the rights holder? Fair use/dealing provisions should exist, but they should be seen as specific exceptions or limitations to the broader principle of copyright protection. I guess what I’m saying is that, if the only two options are unbreakable digital locks or no copy protection at all, then the former is preferable.
Ultimately, we should let the artists decide. And if they decide they want a digital lock on their work, we should respect that.
And don’t forget that the free market has a role to play, as well. If the public expresses its displeasure with digital locks by boycotting the record companies or artists that employ them, I have no doubt that digital locks will very quickly lose their lustre (and such a boycott may also spur technological developments that produce digital locks that allow some of the types of fair use exceptions that exist in the legislation). But let’s not use legislation to take away the right of the artist to control access to his/her work.