Saturday, September 12, 2009

My Copyright Submission

For some reason the Canadian government sought opinions on the future of Canadian copyright law (web site), and asked five questions of submitters. The consultation period ends tomorrow. The following is my submission, plus some additional notes in [square brackets] that were not in the original submission.

1. How do Canada's copyright laws affect you? How should existing laws be modernized?
I think copyright affects our entire society more than we realize. For example, when copyright was retroactively extended by 38 years in the U.S. (18 years in 1976 + 20 more in 1998), two generations of people were denied any additional public domain works, yet few people even noticed. But those of us that did were largely angry about it.

The very premise of copyright — that the only way people should make money is by denying others the right to make copies, and then charging for each copy — frames every discussion about how the "creative economy" works and should work. This is unfortunate because I believe there should be other options.

There are many creative people such as myself that would like to be compensated for our work, but who would also like to share it with the world as widely as possible. I am a Software Engineer, and I make software on salary. What bothers me about my job is that I am making totally closed software, and the number of customers for it will probably be quite limited. I write many algorithms that could have a wide range of applications, but insofar as the software is closed, those algorithms will only ever by used for the one application for which I wrote them. What a waste! And the whole reason I wrote this software is that the third-party closed software we used before didn't meet our needs. If we had access to the source code we could have modified it for our needs (though the expensive license fees were also an issue), but since the software was closed, we had to write the whole thing from scratch. And the software in question—map software similar to what you get in a portable GPS unit—has been written many times over by different companies. Doesn't this amount to wasteful duplication of effort? And the government pays an SR&ED credit for it.

I don't think my company would be materially affected by any changes the government might make to copyright law. Whether you enlarge or shrink the copyright term, whether or not you pass DMCA-style legislation, whatever you do about orphan works, none of that is likely to affect the bottom line [my company relies more on contracts and secret source code than copyright, as we typically sell to business and government].

But for me personally, I would like to see a government program that actually pays some authors outright for their work, in exchange for making that work freely available for anyone in Canada to copy and remix (or, in the case of software, re-use and modify in source code form). Such a system would, of course, not replace copyright, but simply provide a way for authors to be paid without forcing authors to restrict copying.

2. Based on Canadian values and interests, how should copyright changes be made in order to withstand the test of time?
What does that even mean?

3. What sorts of copyright changes do you believe would best foster innovation and creativity in Canada?
As I mentioned, I think the government should provide more funding options for authors, artists and programmers. In addition to the standard "charge for each copy" model, the government should consider another public consultation about at least a pilot program to pay willing artists with tax funds to make free works, and to pay open-source software developers for their valuable contributions to society.

Long copyright terms are not necessary for innovation and creativity. Most commercial copyright works make money for under 20 years. If copyright was 20 years, do you think any film would not be green-lighted because "it may make millions at first, but people will stop buying copies in 2030?" However, perhaps non-commercial rights should last longer than 20 years, such as the "moral rights" of attribution and the right to prevent others from altering the work.

DMCA-style anti-circumvision laws are not necessary for innovation and creativity. Organizations like CRIA, RIAA and MPAA desire such provisions to help them keep using old business models and avoid joining the 21st century. It seems to me they would much rather squeeze more money out of the general public for existing IPs than create new IPs. Economically, if you give in to American lobbies, the main effect will be that Canadian citizens pay more to U.S. corporations.

Remember, these corporate lobbies mainly do not represent artists and authors. They do not represent the Canadian economy or the world economy. They only represent their bosses.

So please, stop considering such things. It would be better to do nothing at all.

4. What sorts of copyright changes do you believe would best foster competition and investment in Canada?
I don't think anything that strengthens copyright will have a tangible impact on competition or investment. But why aren't you asking what changes would be best for the people of Canada? It's not only artists and corporations the government should aim to please, but the citizens too! The citizens would benefit from having access to as many works as possible, with as few restrictions as possible. Ordinary citizens are the most important group to please, because there are vastly more of us ["the greatest good for the greatest number"]. This should be the focus of your lawmaking.

5. What kinds of changes would best position Canada as a leader in the global, digital economy?
What does "digital economy" mean, exactly? If you mean online trade, or the software industry, or electronic trade in music and movies, I don't think anything has to be done to copyright law to keep those things healthy [you know what would increase online trade and lead to new business models? a ubiquitous micropayment system for making instant purchases under $1]. Don't listen to the scare mongers in the CRIA and Hollywood. Their piracy figures are absurdly large, and anyway digital trade is kind of a zero-sum game: "piracy" just means that some low-income Canadians are enjoying more songs/films/software than they can afford to pay for, and middle-class Canadians are spending their money on some other part of the economy instead of giving it to the record or film or game industries. It does not harm the economy as a whole. Let the people speak with their money: if they want to pay these industries they will. I do buy my favorite movies and shows on DVD, and I have paid for many terrific video games, even though I have the means to pirate anything I want.

In any case, the supply of artists and authors will never dry up no matter what you do. It's human nature to create — I work on open source software, even without pay. It's just that if I could get paid, I would make more of it [and better quality, and I'd be more responsive to users' needs--aspects which often harm the uptake of open source].

Look, we already have a bind-bogglingly rich landscape of copyrighted works. No one could ever consume a significant fraction of all available English works or software. Even if you just consume the "best" works, you could never come close to running out. But our laws are wasteful — both economically and morally — because they restrict the audience size for, and re-use/re-mixing of, those works. People don't realize the laws are wasteful because powerful groups have successfully propagated the current intellectual property system and long copyright terms throughout the world. Thus, there are no examples to point to of countries that have successfully taken a different path.

[One more thing I would add--though it is unpopular to say--is that we should seriously consider what size of market for entertainment and software we need. If people had freer access to creative works, they might realize that there are more than enough of them. If we are making too much, we should be open to the possibility that the market should contract--that less works should be produced, and yes, as a consequence, some creative personnel would have to leave the field. Personally I can see virtually unlimited demand for software, when you consider the infinite possibilities for niche customization, and the many new software ideas that have not yet been exploited. But there is a limit to the amount of mass-market entertainment that society needs, and if (when you include the vast library of past works) there is too much, we should not think it a tragedy if Copyright law were weakened so much that the market contracts.]

In conclusion, the Canadian government has so far only considered copying U.S. law. Please don't. Doing nothing would be better. Weakening copyright would be better. Almost anything would be better.