A Canadian author's perspective on "radical extremism" and copyright

As the Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore has declared war on copyright reformers who object to his plan to bring US-style "digital locks" rules to Canada, I think it's worth spelling out what my objections, as a Canadian author, are to his plan (my books are distributed across Canada by the excellent HB Fenn; last year I won the Ontario White Pine Award for best book; as I write this, my novel For the Win is on the Canadian bestseller lists).

Minister Moore has proposed a law that would give near-absolute protection to "digital locks" that control use, access and copying of works stored on a computer, mobile device, set-top box, etc. This is nearly the same policy that the US has had since 1998, when it brought down the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (actually, the American version is slightly better, since they've built in a regular review of the policy). In the intervening 12 years, we've learned two things about digital locks:

1. They don't work. Even the most sophisticated digital locks are usually broken in a matter of hours or days. And where they're not broken, it's mainly because you can get the same works by another means — rather than breaking the iTunes lock, you break the easier Zune lock (or vice-versa), because you can get the same songs either way.

So digital locks don't stop piracy. All they do is weaken the case for buying music, movies and books instead of ripping them off — after all, no one woke up this morning wishing there was a way to do less with her music. So how could adding a digital lock make a paid product more attractive than the free version?

2. They transfer power to technology firms at the expense of copyright holders. The proposed Canadian rules on digital locks mirror the US version in that they ban breaking a digital lock for virtually any reason. So even if you're trying to do something legal (say, ripping a CD to put it on your MP3 player), you're still on the wrong side of the law if you break a digital lock to do it.

Here's what that means for creators: if Apple, or Microsoft, or Google, or TiVo, or any other tech company happens to sell my works with a digital lock, only they can give you permission to take the digital lock off. The person who created the work and the company that published it have no say in the matter.

So if you buy $1,000 worth of digitally locked books for your Kindle or iPad, the author and the publisher can't give you the right to move those to another device. That means that not only are you locked into the Kindle — so is the copyright holder. Authors and publishers who decide to stop selling via a digitally locked platform have to take the risk that their readers will abandon their investment in proprietary books in order to follow them to the next device.

So that's Minister Moore's version of "author's rights" — any tech company that happens to load my books on their device or in their software ends up usurping my copyrights. I may have written the book, sweated over it, poured my heart into it — but all my rights are as nothing alongside the rights that Apple, Microsoft, Sony and the other DRM tech-giants get merely by assembling some electronics in a Chinese sweatshop.

That's the "creativity" that the new Canadian copyright law rewards: writing an ebook reader, designing a tablet, building a phone. Those "creators" get more say in the destiny of Canadian artists' copyrights than the artists themselves.

It doesn't have to be this way. If Minister Moore is serious about protecting actual creators — the Canadians who write books, who design games, who perform music, who produce films and TV shows — then all he has to do is insert a simple exception to his digital locks rule:

A copyright proprietor may authorize the public to remove a digital lock in order to gain access and to use of his copyrighted works

Get that? People who create stuff should have the right to let their audiences move copyrighted works to other platforms.

I challenge Minister Moore to climb down from his nasty smears about copyright reformers and address this and other legitimate concerns over digital locks rules. Thousands and thousands of Canadians spoke out against this kind of rule in the Canadian copyright proceedings. James Moore has tabled a bill that ignores the results of his own consultation, and then had the bad grace to smear the creators and audiences who, in good faith, came forward to participate in the debate over the future of Canadian copyright.

He owes us an apology. And an explanation.