Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Great Un-Debate

I have just returned from what Howard Knopf, it turns out fittingly, describes as "The Great Copyright Un-Debate" at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars here in Washington DC.

The Woodrow Wilson Center plays host to a great many interesting events on difficult issues, from the Israel-Palestinian conflict, to Sino-Russian relations, to Arab-Isralei peacemaking, to Soviet-Taiwanese questions. I am certain that many of those events present a fairer view of the issues at hand than the presentation today on Canada-US copyright issues. Today's presentation by Barry Sookman and Eric Schwartz came across as an unfortunate use of the forum generously provided by the Woodrow Wilson Center to pressure Canadian policymakers into a set of copyright reforms that has long been advocated by American industry groups. The gist of the presentation was to portray Canada in an entirely bad light in a seeming effort to embarrass Canada into such reforms as have long been advocated by American industry and the American government. The presentation was not as scholarly as it was heavy-handed, and might as well have been a presentation by two lobbyists for the American copyright industries. This is unsurprising, especially coming from Schwartz, who is the counsel for the International Intellectual Property Alliance, a group representing those industries.

The view of Canada presented today was one-sidedly negative, with little effort made to inquire into or engage with the problems that make Canadian copyright reform difficult, or the contributions of Canada in the field of copyright. It was presented as incomprehensible as to why Canada had not already put in place a Canadian DMCA. There was no mention of the problems arising out of the American copyright reforms of 1997, which inspired not only a number of needed adjustments, but also set off several international movements whose purpose is, in part, to ensure that the same problems - or worse - do not arise in other countries. The volumes of scholarship by very intelligent and eminent thinkers on both sides of the border, and around the world, related to recent copyright reform efforts were simply pooh-poohed as the work of "copyright antagonists". Rather, a long set of statistics about the number of BitTorrent sites hosted in Canada (Canada hosts several) and the use of those sites by Canadians (though it was admitted that Americans make up a larger portion of the sites' users) served as a large part of the presentation.

When asked, the presenters were at a loss to come up with anything positive they could say about Canada, Canadian copyright, or Canadian copyright policymaking. I have found Sookman's work elsewhere to be helpful and insightful, even if I don't agree with everything he has said; indeed, I have assigned some of it to my students to read. If I had thought of using a webcast of today's presentation in my classes I would think again; those interested in gaining insight into the issues of Canada-US copyright policy will need to do additional reading.

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