Instead of hurriedly introducing a bill that will leave everyone unhappy, the Conservatives would do far better to launch a consultation or commission (as Howard Knopf suggested this week) on copyright.
I am also somehow assuming that the Government is going to keep to Mme Oda’s word by tabling a bill very soon that will be very controversial and that the controversies will be very complex, as they usually are in copyright matters.
If there is a copyright bill, and if it gets as far as committee hearings, it is imperative that it be considered by a balanced committee that represents the mandate of both of the sponsoring departments. The Heritage Committee alone cannot be entrusted alone with this task. Even with Mme Bulte gone, the institutional structure militates against both actual and apparent balance in the hands of that Committee alone. Even before Bulte, that Committee often gave the appearance of imbalance and of being too prone to influence by the Department of Canadian Heritage and the usual lobbying suspects. Indeed, the appearance probably reflected the reality. Clifford Lincoln may have appeared more balanced than Mme Bulte, but the result too often left much to be desired.
The effective low point of copyright committee proceedings was back in the C-32 days in 1996-1997. The Bill that went into committee was a bad one - especially for the educators and broadcasters. But at least there were a few exceptions for users. When it came out of committee, it had exceptions to the exceptions that vitiated the exceptions. It was a dark day for users. And the process was not pretty.
There are two structural improvements that would go a long way to ensuring both the appearance and reality of balanced and transparent committee hearings. They are cumulative and not alternative.
1. There should be a “special joint committee” that brings together all or at least the most knowledgeable and interested members of the Heritage and Industry committees. This would mirror the joint responsibility of the two Ministers and Departments. Such a Committee would have joint chairs. There is ample precedent for this approach.
2. There must be two or even three outside expert counsel to advise the Committee. Bill C-32 had only one outside counsel. For many reasons, the resulting product was a disaster for users. Likewise with the so-called "Bulte Report" in 2004. Fortunately, the Bulte Report had no immediate legal effect, though we may well see its influence infecting the forthcoming bill. In fairness to the counsel involved, we will never know for sure what transpired behind the scenes and whether the results were more because of or in spite of their work. This is simply too much responsibility to put on one person’s shoulders, given the polarization of policy views on copyright and even of expert opinions on legal copyright matters. For example, there is a great cacophony of divergent “expert” opinion on whether downloading P2P music files to a PC hard drive is legal. Another example is whether CCH v. LSUC protects, as fair dealing, much of the activity in the educational system that currently results in passive, massive and arguably greatly excessive payments of millions a year to Access Copyright and much of the internet related activity that CMEC is lobbying about. Whatever Committee considers this bill should have access to frank discussion of the range of opinions. That can only come from hearing all sides - not only from witnesses but from its own expert counsel.
Frankly, I cannot think of any one person who is sufficiently knowledgeable, balanced, experienced, expert in both the common law and “droit d’auteur” perspectives, and who would generally be perceived to be both actually and apparently sufficiently neutral and independent to do the job of committee counsel on their own.
It is no answer for the Government or Parliament to say that it will cost too much to have two or three counsel. How does the Department of Canadian Heritage justify 20 FTEs (full time employees) more or less to work on copyright policy? I suspect that this is probably more than any other government anywhere - and certainly far more than Industry Canada. Presumably, Heritage got the FTEs because copyright is important and because, as many believe, “copyright matters.” Well, if copyright matters, then the money will somehow be found and find its way into the right budget. There’s a huge surplus out there, and it just got bigger with the recent cuts.
What is needed amongst the suggested two and preferably three special committee counsel is a real and perceived balance between common and civil law approaches, and between creators’, owners’, and users’ rights and interests. That is why there ideally should be three people. There should be one person who would have the confidence of creators, owners and collectives on the one hand and another who would have the confidence of users. We would likely need a third person to sit in the middle to facilitate communication and consensus. That person might be a sufficiently experienced, knowledgeable and neutral academic, or, if such a person could not be found, perhaps a retired judge with some good IP decisions under his or her belt. The committee counsel must have the experience and stature to be able to provide frank advice and guidance to committee members, and not simply serve as a passive research or drafting resource. Any relevant client or consulting interests regarding policy matters should be fully disclosed, not only to the committee but to the public.
It will not be easy to implement these suggestions. There are a lot of vested interests who would love to replay Bill C-32 and go back to the Heritage Committee (and not a joint committee) and see it with only one outside expert counsel, as in 1996-1997. But we cannot allow that to happen.
I have not forgotten about the official languages problem. That’s another issue and it may require a ruling from the Federal Court of Appeal and maybe even the Supreme Court of Canada. I’m working on that. However, whatever committee handles the copyright bill can temporarily solve the problem by agreeing, as many committees do, to accept written material in either official language and not demanding it in both - but unfortunately this has not been the practice of the Heritage Committee under the previous government. This is a real issue for less well financed interest groups (i.e. most user groups) who cannot afford the cost of translating essential documentation, which in many cases will exceed the cost of preparing or collecting it - even assuming there is time, which there invariably is not. Although this is a huge legal and political problem, it is not a structural one. It is simply a question of the committee following what many more expert than myself in official languages believe to be the law of Canada. As I’ve said before and will have to say again, “either” means “one or the other.” It does not mean “both”.
If there is to be a bill, we must have the best possible committee structure with the best and most balanced advice available.
We must take the time to get this right. Currently, there are two lobby groups dominating and pushing the agenda. The one that appears to be in the most desperate hurry is CRIA, which has little or no connection with Canadian interests. The other most vociferous demandeur is CMEC, whose approach to copyright matters as reflected in Copyright Matters! is similar to that of Access Copyright as reflected in Captain Copyright, concerning which comparison Michael essentially agrees with me. Ironically, CRIA and CanCopy (the former name for Access Copyright) were the two big winners in Bill C-32.
With all of these difficulties ahead, and the very real likelihood that the bill as expected cannot get through any committee process - fair and balanced or otherwise - before the next election, my judicial copyright commission project begins to look better and better.
Even if there is a majority government after the next election, it may well wish to take the decisive step of calling for and properly constituting a judicially led commission. The current governance model of delegating arguably far too much law making power to the Copyright Board and leaving the ongoing development to be sorted out between two competing departments is not only far from ideal. In too many ways, it isn’t even working.
Perhaps an independent and fully transparent judicial commission can come up with a better way. How should this be set up? We’ll go into that another day.
Ministers may wish to take note.