Tories Quietly Slip Tougher Copyright Rule Into Budget

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The Harper government has introduced an extension of copyright terms as part of the federal budget, in a move that is likely a prelude to Canada signing a major new trade deal.

The budget tabled yesterday includes a measure that will extend copyright protection on audio recordings to 70 years as of the recording’s release, from the current 50 years.

The move has received praise from some corners of the music industry, including from famed crooners Leonard Cohen and Bruce Cockburn.

"The world has changed since our original copyright laws were drafted. Every piece of music is, at least theoretically, with us forever. Extending the copyright term is an eminently sensible response to this new situation and a welcome one," Cockburn reportedly said.

Cohen argued that the current copyright term isn't good enough for older artists, noting that his own songs recorded in the 1960s will soon be off copyright under Canadian law.

Even Randy Bachman of Bachman Turner Overdrive praised the move, despite last year getting into a spat with Prime Minister Stephen Harper over the government's use of BTO's "Taking Care of Business" as music for a speech, reportedly without getting permission.

But consumer rights activists are coming out against it. The change to Canada's copyright law came "despite no study, no public demands, and the potential cost to the public of millions of dollars," e-commerce law professor Michael Geist blogged.

"Experience elsewhere suggests that the extension is a windfall for record companies, with little benefit to artists or the public. In fact, many countries that have implemented the extension have been forced to do so through trade or political agreements, while signalling their opposition along the way."

The copyright change matches what has been reportedly a demand of U.S. negotiators in talks over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal being negotiated between Canada and 11 Pacific Rim countries, including Japan and the U.S.

According to unconfirmed reports earlier this year, Canada and other countries caved to a controversial U.S. demand to extend copyright terms to 70 years.

Though the global standard has traditionally been a 50-year copyright term, the U.S. has had a 70-year term since the late 1990s. The law was the result of heavy lobbying from copyright holders, particularly Disney, which is why the copyright law has been dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” by critics.

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11 Things About TPP Harper Doesn't Want You To Know
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The change to Canada’s copyright term for audio comes just months after the Harper government’s Copyright Modernization Act came into force. The law has been praised by some consumer activists for being relatively consumer-friendly. For instance, it sets a $5,000 limit for fines for non-commercial infringement of copyright, such as file-sharing music, avoiding the massive sums some downloaders in the U.S. have faced.

But according to unconfirmed reports, the TPP could put an end to that by introducing criminal penalties for unauthorized downloading. It has also been reported that “fair use” provisions in copyright laws would be tightened, which could make it more difficult legally to do things such as copy parts of textbooks for courses.

It’s not known whether these elements will be part of the final trade agreement, as talks have been shrouded in an unusual amount of secrecy. When asked in 2013 whether Canada would defend its new copyright law in TPP talks, Canada's chief negotiator would not answer the question.

The U.S. Congress recently came to a bipartisan agreement to give President Barack Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate the deal, essentially limiting Congress’ role to a straight up-or-down vote on the deal.

But delays built into the deal mean the final agreement could be signed by a future president, the New York Times reported.

Observers say TPP talks have entered their final phases, but some disagreements remain, particularly one between the U.S. and Japan over agriculture and auto exports. But reports suggest the two countries will announce next week that they’re worked out their differences.

The TPP would be one of the world’s largest trading blocs, covering 30 per cent of world trade and 40 per cent of its GDP. Besides the U.S., Japan and Canada, the talks include Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

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