Commentary

Copyright Laws: A Primer

What you need to know about the recent copyright laws.

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Last month, some websites, including Wikipedia, went black to protest the two controversial pieces of American legislation that aimed to clamp down on violations of intellectual property and copyright.

SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) were two pieces of American legislation. They would have given the American government power not only to shut down sites that illegally hosted copyrighted material, but to shut down any sites that link to, or advertise on those sites.

The protest was a success, and legislators delayed both SOPA and PIPA indefinitely. However, there are two new pieces of legislation that threaten to do, in Canada, what SOPA and PIPA would have done in the U.S., and more. Bill C-11 and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) are greatly different in scope, but both are coming to a head now.

So what are they? Why are they important? And why have there been such large protests against them in certain places? Let's start with Canada's bill.

Bill C-11

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Members of Polish parliament wear Guy Fawkes masks in protest of ACTA. The mask is an icon of the "Anonymous" movement, who stand for internet freedom.

This is the culmination of years of work on the part of the Conservative government.  The government has tried to pass almost this exact bill twice before, but both times Parliament was dissolved before it could be voted on.

While the law includes some good stuff for most consumers, such as legal clarity for putting music on a YouTube video or ripping a CD for your iPod, it has one major provision that has people concerned. The bill makes it explicitly illegal to break digital locks, even for legal activities.

So, if you purchase a DVD, you're OK to rip the video to use on your iPad, unless the manufacturer says not to. It means you can't jailbreak your iPhone, or root your Android device.

But even if you don't do any of those things, the bill will encourage manufacturers to return to the era of Digital Rights Management - CDs that let you rip them only once or twice; MP3s that don't work on other people's computers. And, more important for students: textbooks or sources that don't let you copy them, even under fair use. You'll be unable to print off that reading your professor sent you, and your professor won't be able to print out, or maybe even distribute, handouts.

During its consultation stage, C-11's predecessor was opposed by 6,600 people who mailed in letters. Despite this, C-11 is nearly identical.

With a majority government, C-11 looks like it will pass.

ACTA

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is an international agreement that aims to limit copyright infringement on the Internet, counterfeiting, and counterfeit medicine sales. It would also establish a new governing body to regulate copyright laws within member states.

The agreement was negotiated largely in secret, with first pulbic knowledge of it coming from Wikileaks in 2008. It has been signed by Canada, the US, Japan, and other wealthy nations. Right now, the EU is trying to approve it.

What is so scary to people about ACTA is its scope. In the past, sites such as the Pirate Bay have survived due to the differences between each country's copyright laws. Under ACTA, nations would be obligated to enforce uniform regulation.

It is worth noting that ACTA, unlike C-11 or SOPA/PIPA, is an international agreement, not law. It would not create new laws; it would simply enforce existing ones.

Opponents such as Doctors without Borders oppose ACTA's focus on illegal generic drugs. The treaty would enforce existing laws, clamping down on counterfeit drugs. The possible impact on places like Africa could be devastating.

However, in recent weeks, there has been a large protest against ACTA in Eastern Europe.

On Jan. 31, the Slovenian ambassador to Japan said he regretted signing the agreement.

"I signed ACTA out of civic carelessness," she said. An estimated 3,000 Slovenians protested the bill's signing on Feb. 4.

On Jan. 25, more than 25,000 people demonstrated across Poland in opposition to the Polish president's plans to sign the treaty. The Polish prime minister announced a suspension of the ratification process.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic announced he would suspend his support. There had been large protests in Prague. And today, Germany announced its refusal to ratify ACTA, after large protests there.

ACTA is in danger as a result of these protests, with universal ratification required for the EU to officially join. If the EU doesn't adopt it, ACTA may get dropped altogether and tried again later.

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