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Ottawa to make cracking digital encryption illegal

Update: The federal government will unveil a bill to upgrade the Copyright Act today at 3:30 p.m.

The Harper government is moving ahead with a controversial law that would spell out in much sharper detail what Canadians can and cannot do with digital copies of songs, movies and TV episodes.

Under the proposed regime, however, any digital locks that companies slap on this material - and others such as electronic books - will in most cases trump consumer rights to copy them.

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Industry Minister Tony Clement will introduce amendments to the Copyright Act on Wednesday that would make it explicitly illegal under intellectual property law to crack the digital encryption on material protected from duplication.

Discover Globetechnology's special series on copyright and filesharing in the 10 years since Napster. The five-part series includes numerous audio interviews with mash-up musicians, industry watchers and Torrent site operators.

At the same time, the Tories are trying to soften the blow for consumers by changing the rules so that commonplace but grey-area practices such as copying purchased music are legal for personal use.

The Conservatives are responding to pressure from the United States and Europe to strengthen Canadian copyright-protection law. It hasn't been substantially updated since 1997, which was several years before mass swapping of music, TV episodes and movies began on the Internet.

The Tories are not expected to allow generous "fair dealing" exceptions to this strong legal protection for digital locks on music, TV shows, movies or electronic books.

In practice, this could turn some relatively innocuous reproductions of these intellectual works into a clear-cut case of breaking copyright law.

For example, it could mean it's a crime if a Canadian made a copy of a BBC TV series bought from the UK in order to play it on a North American-region DVD player. Software such as DVD Shrink have made it easy for consumers to decrypt and copy DVDs.

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As part of what they are calling a "balanced approach," the Tories will propose allowing Canadians to copy already purchased music from CDs or elsewhere to digital music players or cell phones. In legal parlance this is called "format shifting."

NDP copyright critic Charlie Angus says he's not sure Canadians will be impressed by Ottawa's attempt to placate them by legitimizing practices that are already common.

"If they're telling you that you won't be criminalized for backing up a song on an iPod, people are going to say, 'So what?' " Mr. Angus said.

Ottawa will also move to legitimize the practice of home recording of TV shows for later viewing, as long as it's not done to build up a library of duplicated works. Copyright lawyers call this "time shifting" - jargon for the home taping that Canadians previously did using videocassette recorders and now do through digital video recorders.

Time shifting and format shifting are not yet officially legal in Canada.

Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa expert in Internet law, said he's expecting the legislation will lack a flexible "fair dealing" provision that gives users broader leeway to use copyrighted works without permission for legal purposes such as research, reporting, or private study.

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"The notion that a digital lock on music or electronic books or DVDs trumps all other copyright rights - that remains unchanged."

The Harper government has signalled it's open to compromise on the legislation and proposed to expedite scrutiny of the bill by having a Parliamentary committee meeting during the summer break to hear testimony on it.

It's the second time the Tories have tried to pass this legislation. The first attempt in 2008 met with heavy criticism and the bill died after an election was called.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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