Copyright Extension in Canada Generating a Familiar Controversy

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September 21: Carly Rae Jepsen attends Canada's Walk Of Fame Ceremony in Toronto, Canada.

There's growing dissent that Canada's copyright extension is a "cash grab" for record labels that could cost the public millions.

Leonard Cohen's a fan. So is Bruce Cockburn and Randy "Taking Care of Business" Bachmann. So why has the Canadian government's surprise move to extend the length of copyright for sound recordings from 50 to 70 years come under fire from analysts and public advocates, who say it's against public interest?

"This extension is a really bad idea," Tamir Israel, from the Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa, told the National Post. "There is no proof at all the extended copyright term in any way increases incentives to create. On the other hand, Canadians are robbed of open access to works that should be entering the public domain."

In an article titled "The Great Canadian Copyright Giveaway," Michael Geist, an Internet and e-commerce Law professor at the University of Ottawa, said people weren't exactly clamorring for the copyright extension, and warned the added delay of works in the public domain could cost Canadians millions of dollars.

"How would the public be better served by having less access and fewer works in the public domain?" he asked. "The recording industry would obviously like to keep works from entering the public domain so that it can continue to profit from them decades after having recouped their initial investment. Yet it's hard to see how anyone can credibly claim that works are 'lost' to the public domain and that the public interest in not served by increased public access."

As Geist also points out, the proposed term extension is not for the song itself but for the recording or performance of it. Those copyrights are "related rights," which are typically held by record companies, and not "author rights," often owned by the artists themselves.

"Why is the government using the budget to enact a copyright term extension that primarily benefits foreign record labels, has proven controversial elsewhere, has been largely dismissed by numerous studies (including one funded by the government), was not the subject of a major public campaign from stakeholders, and that could cost Canadians millions of dollars?" Geist asks.

The answer, Geist and others believe, is that the Canadian government wants to add the copyright term extension ahead of the in-the-works Trans Pacific Partner agreement, a wide-ranging trade pact between the United States, Canada and ten other countries. TPP documents leaked to Wikileaks suggest the U.S. has urged all parties (including Canada) to implement copyright term extensions for all works.

"It's unacceptable that Canadian laws are being shaped by U.S. priorities in the vain hope that these costly concessions will please Big Media giants and Hollywood lobbyists," said Meghan Sali of the OpenMedia advocacy group in a statement. "We're walking into a copyright trap."

A similar 50-to-70-year copyright extension bump was adopted by the European Union in 2011, a move that was also seen as a major victory for record labels who would have seen some very popular recordings -- like The Beatles' first single, 1962's "Love Me Do" -- passing into the public domain. Eight countries, including Belgium and Sweden, voted against the change, and there have been numerous studies, from the Dutch government, a group of UK academics and others, arguing against copyright extension for sound recordings.

Sali said those previous studies "have panned copyright extensions as little more than a cash grab for huge media conglomerates -- offering no major benefits to the creators they're supposed to protect. Everyday Canadians will end up footing the bill, by being forced to spend millions of dollars to pay for content that otherwise would have ended up in the public domain."