The Harper Conservative government is planning to change Canada’s copyright law to allow political parties to use content published and broadcast by news organizations for free in their own political ads – including attacking ads..
An internal Conservative cabinet document details an amendment to the federal Copyright Act which would allow “free use of ‘news’ content in political advertisement intended to promote or oppose a politician or political party.”
The amendment would also remove “the need for broadcasters to authorize the use of their news content.” And it would force media outlets to run political ads even if their own footage and content was used in a negative message to voters.
In other words, the government is planning to change Canada’s copyright rules so that political parties can use content from media organizations, for free, in their political ads.
The internal document warns that media outlets will vehemently claim their work is being unfairly targeted for the benefit of political parties. The document provides instructions to Conservatives to come up with a strong communication plan to manage the reaction.
The proposed legislation is buried in the Harper Conservatives’ latest omnibus bill, which is sure to pass in the House of Commons, given the Conservative majority. The bill will be introduced in the coming weeks.
The Liberals and NDP say sneaking in a change to the Copyright Act in the massive bill is “deceitful” and designed to give the Conservative campaign an edge ahead of next year’s federal election.
“Changing copyright law … to improve their odds of winning over the Canadian public as opposed to improving copyright law to improve the economy, let’s say, is disrespectful,” says NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen.
“And to bury it in the middle of an omnibus bill suggests that they knew this wouldn’t be popular.”
Cullen said using material gathered by journalists for attack-ad purposes without having to ask for news outlets’ permission is “disrespectful” and “shameful.”
“If I say something unflattering or if I do something that looks a little embarrassing, suddenly it’s a Conservative ad,” he said.
“They (the Conservatives) just don’t seem to have any ethical boundary at all. Anything goes, as long as it plays to their advantage.”
Deputy Liberal Leader Ralph Goodale accused the Conservatives of “choosing a very devious process” to bypass copyright rules that currently prevent them from using media outlets’ material.
“This is an attempt to take something that is clearly illegal at the moment…and to change the law so that the rules will now suit Conservative practices,” he said.
Goodale said the move would blur the line between news and propaganda.”
The Conservative Party has already been accused of lifting content from media organizations without permission, for use in attack ads against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who holds the Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law, said in a blog post that the law under fair dealing may already cover some of the uses and that copyright law should not be used to stifle political speech.
But he cautioned against the Conservatives’ plans, saying the proposal is a narrow one that doesn’t apply equally to all Canadians for fair use.
“The creation of an exception that only allows a select few to benefit is not a provision that can be defended on freedom of political speech grounds,” Geist wrote.
“We are all entitled to exercise our political speech rights. A new exception that guards against copyright stifling such speech should apply to all.”
Professor Geist is right. A piece of legislation that only changes copyright law for “political actors”, as this legislation does, is an incredibly self-serving move by the Harper government and must be opposed. It suggests a new low for a government that continually crosses the boundary from what is acceptable and what is unacceptable partisan behaviour.
As today’s Star editorial (link attached) suggests:
“A far-reaching public debate about Canadian copyright law in the digital age is well overdue. But rather than prompt that conversation, the government instead seems poised to bury a narrow, self-serving exception to the law deep in an omnibus budget bill. It’s another bad-faith political trick masquerading as democracy.”
News for Ontario’s 99% agrees. This legislation should be stopped in its tracks!