In the scheme of things, few people have the interest (or is it patience?) to delve deeply into the concept of “intellectual property” (IP). I think that is why IP regulation is among the most under-considered issues in public political discourse today. It’s difficult, in the snap of a soundbite, to make an easily understood and appropriately deep point regarding IP.
Recently, I sent a couple Canadian party leaders a letter encouraging them to make intellectual property regulation a well-recognized issue (that is, ensuring there is less of it as opposed to the DMCA-style direction it appears to be heading). I included a copy of Lawrence Lessig’s book, Free Culture, because I think he does such a good job examining many of the aspects of present-day “intellectual property” debates. The following is the text of my letters, slightly modified to read less like a letter. I wanted to post this for the sake of adding to whatever public conversation on the subject I can.
I believe the damaging concepts of “intellectual property” are pressing issues for Canada and no party seems to care enough to make it a priority. I’d like to argue that it should be a priority and if presented well, it could rally people around this neglected cause. Although “intellectual property” initially seems like a difficult concept to discuss, presenting it in concrete terms, with examples, and pragmatic solutions will make it of palpable import to
- Canadian sovereignty
- Canada/Quebec culture
- Workers’ rights and well-being
- Individual freedom
- Canada’s edge in technology, science, and business
- A Canadian vision of modern society
- Respect for our own heritage
In the following, I’ll try to briefly state my view on those seven points. I think this issue could project a dedicated party into a unique position, galvanizing the attention of many voters.
1. Canadian Sovereignty
Barely bobbing in the shallow layers of several domestic media outlets recently, word is that Harper’s conservatives may attempt to increase restrictions on “intellectual property” access and usage. Usually, when I dig through the news I find that these are in response to various foreign pressures. Have people already forgotten the way Bev Oda was reportedly ready to sell-out Canadian cultural rights to regulations of industry representatives (and not necessarily Canadian ones)? Why hasn’t this conservative wound been continuously prodded by the other parties?
Recently, you may have heard of the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)-a Canadian project to provide access to copies of musical scores, which are in the public domain. Universal Edition, a publishing company in the European Union sent a cease-and-desist letter to the IMSLP because some of what it provided was not considered public domain outside of Canada. IMSLP, as a small operation, had little choice but to cave to the corporation.
In an increasing number of countries, modern copyright terms are overly lengthy. Intellectual property laws are nearing draconian proportions in US and some EU jurisdictions, which emboldens foreign companies to act in ways that affect Canadian individuals or organizations, thus impinging on Canadian sovereignty.
2. Culture-Canada’s Inferiority Complex and One of Quebec’s Great Imperatives
Canadians frequently make self-abasing jokes about our own culture. At least Quebec is constantly up in arms to ensure its culture thrives. Couldn’t “intellectual property” freedom be a lightening rod for support to improve local culture? Most federal parties certainly need support in Quebec. Why enact stricter IP laws that restrict the apprehension, distribution, even creation of our culture?
Artists, for example the Canadian Music Creators Coalition, tend not to favour extra restrictions. Artists inherently understand the importance of being free to play off of one another’s work and related work within our culture. Make the conditions right for our culture to grow and be disseminated, which more restrictive copyright, patent, and other “intellectual property” laws prohibit. We must have the freedom to apprehend and contribute to our culture, unrestricted.
3. Workers’ Rights and Well-Being
Company after company in information technology and knowledge work industries, science and research industries, etc. require employees to sign agreements about what amounts to the contents of their own minds. Read the agreements carefully-most don’t say it outright- but they can be understood in no other way. Those agreements often result in the implication that anything a worker comes up with, while under a company’s employ (sometimes whether on the job or not) automatically becomes the company’s property. This is a gross abuse of our workforce’s rights and well-being.
The realm of the IT world has a reputation of allowing people to make a decent living. Because much of the industry’s work product is formed in intangible electrons, perhaps nobody thinks IT/knowledge workers need help. The kind of damage occurring here is less immediately obvious than is the physical damage that can take place in other types of workplaces. It is subtle but it is severe. And it’s a template for other industries. It’s time for these “white collar” industries to lose their nice guy lustre and be exposed for the way they take advantage of Canadian citizens.
4. Individual Freedom
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of thought and expression. I doubt many people ever believed freedom of thought could truly be at risk, but it is. In addition, our generally accepted cultural freedoms are under attack. The notion that something exists called “intellectual property” implies it. It paves the way for people to accept that what takes place in a non-physical realm can be owned the same as physical property. A shovel can be stolen and there is one less in stock at the hardware store but a digital music file, like an idea, cannot-it can only be duplicated.
Following a road toward more restrictive “intellectual property rights” will eventually require us to stipulate who owns the rights of copyability for portions of every individual’s shared reality within our greater community. That may sound like alarmist and conspiracy-theorist talk. I know that it can take a lengthy amount of explanation to show how statements like the above make sense, to show that something like a sci-fi scenario of companies owning parts of peoples’ brains (much closer than it might sound) could take place, or perhaps to even introduce the word “reality” in popular political discourse. But there are ways to get these points across. Easy ones.
An invested political leader could incite passion via examples. Did you read the recent news article, where a father in the US wanted to take a photo of his children but was prevented because a company owned copyright to the image of the building that happened to be a part of where they were standing? How long before that attitude comes to Canada? Will we be allowed to take pictures of our children watching a hockey match if the team owner doesn’t give permission for reproducing an image of the players? It’s our experience after all, our reality just as much as anyone else’s.
What about a newspaper? Will it be allowed to publish a report and photograph of a strike taking place in front of a major auto manufacturer’s facility (and its trademarked logo) if the manufacturer doesn’t give the newspaper permission to publish the photo or print its trademarked name? How about the employee who signs on with his new job in a management consultancy. In his free time he thinks up a theory about how to improve work processes and writes a book about it. The company sues him because they believe they own the rights to those processes since they employed him.
How long before Canadians accept these things as commonplace and lose the core freedoms in our reality that are part of the foundation for all our freedoms?
5. Canada’s Edge in Technology, Science, and Business
The faster we develop new technology, the more we’re enthralled by it. This has positive and negative aspects, which are not within the realm of the point I’d like to make here. But new technology, science, and business can be better fostered without regulations that would be brought about by an “intellectual property” industry attitude favouring more restrictive “intellectual property” laws.
Fields of research in science, technology, and software development are faced with a patent plague. Patents are no longer used as incentives but rather as weapons of fear, inducing people not to follow through on ideas discoveries or not to follow certain lines of research and development that could be of huge benefit to society. Canada’s “intellectual property” laws must enable people to perform research unfettered by the fear of aggressive patent portfolios; to harness new technology; and to develop new, better, businesses, rather than prop up dead-end businesses that are unwilling to grow. This requires giving creative individuals the freedom to explore their innovative pursuits: the entrepreneurs, the artists, the scientists, and the programmers.
Think about when refrigerators became commonplace. Ice-delivery businesses either adapted to support the new technology, found a different business, or were overcome. Today, the many media distribution companies are like ice-delivery businesses. Recording distributors like major music labels take advantage of their power and money to influence politicians and adapt laws that preserve their dead-end business models. Instead, they should be adapting their models, replacing the old distribution of physical CDs, for example, with the new model of operating digital networks. The distribution medium changed but the companies haven’t. Tragically, instead such companies pervert the law and propagandize society in an effort to colonize our shared creative culture for their ends. Industry has transformed the positive engagement of sharing into a fearsome one called pirating.
6. A Canadian Vision of Modern Society
I think of a politician’s bind: the difficulty of both representing and leading simultaneously. Few political representatives are able to communicate a compelling vision of a path we ought to take. A vision representing Canadian interests by promoting our thriving, open-minded culture, is one that will help prepare Canada to address the difficult problems we face. What good is improving the lot of all members of society (Medicare, minimum wages, good public education, etc.) if our lives are miserable? Without fostering a culture that encourages creative liberty, I doubt we’d have the collective mindset to be capable of mustering great ideas like these.
The soul of all that we build as a society, is expressed in our culture. We must not allow a corporate oligarchy, foreign pressures, or the limited thinking of a few to limit that soul. The political party leaders out to present a vision of modern Canada filled with the best of our culture, philosophy, and learning, and alive with the elements introduced by people that have joined us from around the world. This society can thrive only when people are free of artificial restraints against apprehending our living culture, contributing to it, and sharing it.
7. Respect for Our Own Heritage
We must maintain our own access to what we have produced. What we produce, we must be able to preserve for the future of our society. Extending copyrights and other forms of “intellectual property” restrictions to lengths beyond a short and reasonable time frame damages our ability to respect our own heritage.
The physical media on which we’ve recorded certain types of our cultural artefacts or even scientific research, degrade over time. We need to ensure that these things are maintained and perpetuated. In the US for example, old films are disintegrating-companies that own the rights do not have the financial incentive to preserve them and nobody else has the rights to reproduce or disseminate these films. Thus, not only are people in the USA and the world deprived of the possibility to experience part of their shared reality in the present, but future generations will also be deprived of their heritage.
We are losing the context that so many of our inventions, like writing, have provided history. If Canada allows companies to lock away our culture, allows companies to take away Canadian citizens’ rights to our own shared reality by introducing increased “intellectual property” restrictions, then we show a gross disrespect to ourselves.
Rather than allow conservatives to say that they are “modernizing intellectual property rights” or “protecting” the rights of artists, why not reveal such statements for what they are: harmful to artists’ creativity, harmful to the Canadian public, and a grossly offensive manoeuvre perpetuated by those that don’t care about Canadians’ freedoms.
I know there are many important things to take care of in and outside of parliament, for example, our environment, work conditions for a country of people at various income levels, Canada’s role on an international scale, etc. Still, we need a party that will also address the problem of “intellectual property” restrictions.
Corporate entities want to control the distribution and apprehension of all forms of our cultural artefacts. Music, movies, books, images, inventions, discoveries, architectural forms in public spaces, all of these things and more are being quickly sucked into a restricted zone of apprehension. In order to experience or reproduce these things, one increasingly must go through insurmountable efforts for gaining permission.
Our cultural artefacts, once made public, are by the nature of being public an integral part of our living culture. No artist, business person, philosopher, architect, scientist, etc. works in a vacuum. These workers gain inspiration and insight experiencing our shared culture, shared reality, which is infused with the very products of their creative labours.
Many political representatives would prefer to maintain the status quo, lie in the womb of industry, or to stick their heads under the ground, pretending the impossible safety of passed years still exists. We need political leaders with the foresight to present a concrete vision for improving Canada and leading to a better future.