Rethinking copyright in the media age

After the controversy surrounding last year's proposed copyright bill C-61, which eventually died on the order table when Parliament was prorogued, the Federal government has decided to hold consultations across Canada before introducing a new version of the bill. While only time will tell how responsive the government will be to the public's submissions, the series of town halls and round tables is definitely a good start in making the process transparent and taking the views of a wide variety of Canadians into account. Below is an expanded version of MNet's submission to the Round Table held in Gatineau, Quebec on July 29th 2009.

Media education is essential

To begin with, any new copyright law must recognize that the media environment has changed radically since the Copyright Act was written; even since its last major revision in 1985. Canadians live in a media environment that would have been literally unimaginable to the Act's original drafters. For young people, especially, media form one of the most important parts of their lives: according to a Fast Forward Trend Analysis study, Canadians aged 12 to 14 watched 18 hours of TV a week in 2006 and spent 21 hours a week on the Internet, while those aged 15 to 19 spent 15 hours watching TV and 22 hours online. (Fast Forward Trend Analysis, August 2006) That's not to mention the increasingly sophisticated cell phones, personal audio and video devices, computer and video games and other media sources that youth use to entertain themselves. Simply put, youth are immersed in media almost from day one.

How this media exposure affects youth is very much up to us. Whether or not they are aware of it, youth take values and messages from media. They need to learn to recognize the ways in which those messages are communicated and question and engage with them. From advertising to violence to body image, issues essential to the health and well-being of our youth are tied to media consumption.

More and more, youth are media creators as well. Whether it's participating in social networking sites, writing blogs, filming and posting online videos or crafting user-generated content for video games, new technologies are allowing youth to actively participate in creating media. We are only just beginning to realize the implications of putting media creation and worldwide publication tools into the hands of children and teenagers, marvelling at what they can achieve and fearful of the consequences of the bad choices they can make.

Understanding and participating in the media are also increasingly a part of being an active citizen. As media messages dominate our political debates and tools such as Facebook are used for activism and organizing political movements, it is becoming increasingly important for young people to be able to view media critically in order to participate as citizens of Canada.

In this increasingly complex media world, media literacy is the most effective tool we have to provide children and youth with the necessary critical thinking skills to maximize the benefits of media and new technologies and minimize the risks.

In short, media literacy is essential. Citizens who lack the ability to question, engage with and create media are at a disadvantage as consumers and citizens and are all too likely to be left behind in the knowledge economy. Canada has been a world leader in getting media education into the classroom, to the point where it is now an essential component of the core curricula of all provinces and territories.

Copyright law must make media education possible

How effective media education can be depends in large part on copyright law. The current educational exceptions must be preserved and, in general, the principle of Fair Dealing should be extended to include educational purposes to ensure that teachers are able to provide their students with authentic and meaningful media education tasks and lessons.

To begin with, students need to be able to study media products such as advertisements, movies, and TV shows that are under copyright. Working only with public domain or copyright-cleared material runs the risk of creating a media education program that is too much at odds with students' actual experience of media; it is essential that students be allowed to study and work with the media they themselves consume. This means that teachers must have the ability to record and display/exhibit excerpts of a media product for educational purposes. To achieve this, the current exception – which allows teachers to reproduce media for a test or examination – needs to be expanded to cover general classroom use as well. For instance, the following clip, an annotated version of the film The Royal Tenenbaums, which layers commentary onto movie's opening sequence, would likely be illegal under the current Copyright Act:

Teachers should be given the ability to use excerpts of media products for legitimate educational purposes without having to seek permission or pay royalties, with a further exception made for very short programs (such as TV commercials) where recording and showing the full piece would be permitted.

To ensure that media education programs continue to grow and evolve, teachers need to be able to shift media products between formats for educational purposes (e.g. creating a compilation of clips for class study); for that reason legitimate educational activity must be exempted from any provisions covering format-shifting. Moreover, the spirit of the educational exception should not be undermined by other clauses such as those covering "digital locks". Teachers should also be able to sample and excerpt from copyrighted works in order to publish and distribute media education lessons, activities and best practices to other educators.

Finally, copyright law should allow students to deconstruct and parody media products for educational purposes. Creation and reconstruction of media products is a key pillar of media education, and requires that students have the ability to excerpt and remix some or all of a media product for educational purposes. It is essential that students learn to create and remix media as well as to view it critically; not giving students the tools to manipulate media products is like teaching them to read without teaching them to write. For example, the following video, a student project which analyzes the effects of the media on body image among women and girls, would likely be illegal under the current Copyright Act:

It should be noted that these changes to the Copyright Act, while extensive, are not out of line with educational exceptions found in the copyright laws of other countries. The US Fair Use doctrine gives educators and students wide latitude to use copyrighted materials in schools. Closer to our own legal tradition, the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act already contains several measures similar to those outlined above, and the UK Intellectual Property Office has proposed changes to copyright exceptions that would expand those still further.

Canadian youth need to be educated about copyright and other intellectual property issues

As well as learning about the media, youth need to be taught about the various aspects of intellectual property law. It's clear that the public in general, and youth in particular, are poorly informed about copyright issues; a 2008 Environics study on Canadians' attitudes towards intellectual property labelled the largest group "the Impressionables" due to their tendency to look to others for cues on such issues as file-sharing and illegal downloading. The less well-informed the public is, the more we risk letting the debate be dominated by extreme positions.

A lack of education on intellectual property issues also makes it more difficult for youth to abide by the law in their media use. A study conducted in the UK ("UK adults turn their nose up at content owners' right to royalties," Telindus, July 2009) found that a majority of those polled believed that copyright had no force on the Internet, with posted and uploaded material being "free for all." If youth are not taught about copyright law – including the issues and debates around intellectual property in the Internet age – they cannot be faulted for not abiding by it. Teachers, too, need to be informed about their rights to use copyrighted material in the classroom – especially if the changes outlined above are enacted – in order to provide students with a meaningful education in media issues.

As Canada's economy continues to move away from manufacturing, more of us will become producers of intellectual property, but the same UK study found that only a quarter of those polled knew what rights they possessed to material they had created and posted online. A healthy, widely-obeyed and up-to-date Copyright Act is essential both to the success of Canada's economy and to our youth's ability to succeed as knowledge workers and media creators.