War of Words Erupt in Canadian Copyright Debate

It seems that the copyright debate is heating up more recently between Barry Sookman and someone from WIPO and several bloggers and experts on the subject of copyright.

When it comes to the copyright debate in Canada, it seemed to go something like this. Many Canadians from different sides get together, discuss the issues at hand, come to a consensus, then copyright lobbyists conduct secret meetings with politicians to overrule everyone elses opinions to satisfy a few foreign companies. This was true with the Liberal governments Bill C-60, the Conservatives Bill C-61 and, so far, it seems to ring true with ACTA and CETA. Whenever the entertainment industry goes on public record, they tend to be dismissive of any dissenting opinion and practically say that they are always right and leave it at that no matter how debunked the argument is. Some of that might be changing now.

A Rocky Past

When it comes to the copyright industry convincing Canadian citizens that cracking down on alleged file-sharers was the way of the future, the industry simply saw its PR diminish from failure to disastrous to fatally catastrophic.

Michael Geist started a copyright pledge where a minister wouldn’t take lobbying money by the big foreign entertainment lobby as it might constitute a conflict of interest. This pledge was asked back when the Liberal party was seeking re-election. Sam Bulte, the minister of Canadian heritage seeking re-election shot back when asked to take the pledge by calling consumer rights supporters “pro-user zealots” and defending her record by taking big donations from Hollywood and tabling Bill C-60. That remark sparked outrage and turned potential voters into sworn enemies – many argue its that comment that sealed her fate for losing her bid for re-election. It wasn’t good news for copyright lobbyists who were hoping to win over support for their cause.

CRIA, meanwhile, were heavily lobbying candidates through secret meetings, something that didn’t please Canadians. This was problematic since the major Canadian labels left CRIA. Ever since the Canadian labels left CRIA, CRIA was then known as an entity that was hardly even Canadian at all. It seems that the Canadian cultural scene rejected CRIAs stance on copyright and went on their own ways, leaving CRIA to simply be representing the big four foreign record labels. It was a PR disaster for the entity that was one of the most vocal entities of tightening copyright laws which would crack down on alleged file-sharers – and in turn, crack down on innovation in the process.

On a campaign of change, the Conservative party won the following election. Many had hoped that the Conservative party would actually listen to voters and not sell Canadians out like the Liberal party had. The copyright profile was passed around from Minister Bev Oda to Maxime Bernier and then to Jim Prentice. On word that he was planning on selling out Canadians to foreign interests, protesters swarmed him and demanded answers. Prentice simply brushed off criticism saying that critics hadn’t read the bill that wasn’t even tabled. Turns out, the protesters were not only right, but more correct then they had ever imagined after Prentice tabled Bill C-61 that not only sold Canadians out, but it sold Canadians out more than the Liberal bill. The outrage intensified and the only ones that were happy were entities like CRIA and the Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association (CMPDA) – little doubt who unfairly won the debate.

Graham Henderson and CRIA were always combative rather than convincing. They took flawed studies as fact and let fact gatherers like Pollara and the Conference Board of Canada take the heat for being either impartial or outright plagiarizing inaccurate information. It may have been apparent to some by then that anyone CRIA touches, their credibility takes huge blows – be it Pollara, the Conservative Party of Canada or the Liberal Party, the effect is always the same. Perhaps the only thing CRIA did correctly was distribute the PR radiation evenly over several entities.

Of course, lets not forget the infamous stacking of the deck in a town hall meeting during the copyright consultation [authors note: for those who are unaware, the video of the meeting has been fixed and is fully functional at this point.]

Then, in an unexpected and seemingly more fatal PR blow more recently, CRIA was hit with a $6 Billion lawsuit over bootlegging artists works without proper payment. It became apparent that whatever PR CRIA had left had all but vanished. It seems that the biggest enemy to Graham Henderson’s campaign were his own people working the chequebooks much more than any criticism launched by sceptics of his message.

A New Front

The major foreign entities have had a major problem in recent months – who could even remotely take the stage to even pressure anyone into believing copyright restriction was the answer for copyright reform? Graham Henderson is now out of the question given CRIAs reputation lay in shambles after the most recent self inflicted hit. The Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association is barely known and have admitted in the past that they merely represent foreign movie companies. Finding the one of only a small handful of artists that share the viewpoint is not going to work since for every one artist the copyright lobby can find to carry the message, hundreds of artists would disagree.

Now, it seems a lobbyist, Barry Sookman, is gradually filling in the roll of spokesperson for the small minority who want tighter copyright control. He hasn’t exactly been user friendly given the allegations of censorship among other things, but one should at least acknowledge a few things no other poster child of rich companies trying to put the squeeze on consumer rights has done. He did start a blog and has the audacity to respond to some of the criticisms being made against the copyright lobby. It’s an extremely brave thing to do in an environment where 90% of everyone in the debate would rather egg you for having such an opinion.

Sookman actually responds to criticism whereas before, the policy was to bat of criticism like an annoying mosquito which does represent a shift in attitude toward even debating copyright in the first place.

The War of Words

Unfortunately for Sookman, pretty much everything is working against him. Being a registered lobbyist for CRIA does not help things from the beginning. Having rumours about censoring debate on his blog isn’t winning him friends. Then there’s the toughest part of all about a lack of credible Canadian allies left in the debate who are of the opinion that copyright laws should be further restricted.

Sookman’s blog so far can be summed up in this observation – “It’s one thing to have a blog and enter a debate, but it’s quite another to be considered acceptable” and the most recent fiasco shows it.

It all started with a posting on Michael Geists site where he noted the European Union ratifying WIPO. Dr. Ficsor of WIPO posted a guest post in Sookmans blog attacking Geist saying that anyone who is sceptical about implementing WIPO are little more than “free-access” “revolutionaries” and likens them to those who follow the style of “hatred-driven style of Maoist Guards” at the end of a long and drawn out post.

Unsurprisingly, Geist wasn’t exactly impressed with the name calling and said that “no amount of name calling or bullying will alter the fact that Canada can be compliant with the WIPO Internet treaties without implementing the version of the treaty that Ficsor wanted but failed to get.”

Barry Sookman in the mean time went in to overdrive saying that opponents to ACTA were led by Michael Geist and that they were leading a fear mongering propaganda campaign – as if irony couldn’t be any thicker. As an author who posted about the ACTA leaks at roughly the same time Geist’s post went up, I can safely say that I read through the documents myself and drew my own conclusions. If Sookman thinks that anyone who criticizes ACTA are just blindly and mindlessly following what Michael Geist is saying, he has another thing coming. Trust me when I say I’m quite independent minded.

Then in response to Michael Geist about Ficsor, Sookman wrote a piece in his blog entitled, “Dr. Ficsor is right; Prof. Geist is wrong about the WIPO Internet Treaties” which may as well have read, “I’m right, you’re wrong, so nya!”

In all honesty, it’s sometimes shocking that people with such large resumes would be so childish. It’s one thing to criticize established experts on a subject, but it’s quite another to use personal insults to try and prove a point. In some respects, it’s understandable given that having experience outside of closed door meetings might be scarce when in a locked door meeting with executives who just agree with you day in and day out. It’s not every day that a copyright lobbyist registers a blog and actually responds to the criticism – at least in Canada. It’s different talking to a bunch of executive friends and talking to a population as diverse as the internet. Critics of tightening copyright laws have a lot of online experience – experience that is unlikely to be possessed by very many copyright lobbyists.

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