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CANADIANS: Uploading a file to a peer-to-peer network or YouTube could result in lawsuits of $20,000 per file!

By Peter Nowak,
CBC News

The federal government has introduced a controversial bill it says balances the rights of copyright holders and consumers — but it opens millions of Canadians to huge lawsuits, prompting one critic to warn it will create a “police state.”

“We are confident we have developed the proper framework at this point in time,” Minister of Industry Jim Prentice told a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday. “This bill reflects a win-win approach.”

Bill C-61 contains an anti-circumvention clause that will make it illegal to break digital locks on copyrighted material. That means TiVos and other personal video recorders (PVRs) will be made useless if television broadcasters choose to put technical locks on their shows so they can’t be recorded.

People caught downloading music or video files illegally could also be sued for a maximum of $500, but uploading a file to a peer-to-peer network or YouTube could result in lawsuits of $20,000 per file.

Prentice deflected questions about potential lawsuits by saying the bill is necessary to modernize Canada’s laws.

“You can get into hypothetical situations,” he said, “but the purpose of the bill has been to expand the balance of protection between consumers and copyright holders.”

Critics blasted the government for the legislation, with Liberal industry critic Scott Brison suggesting Prentice was proposing the creation of a “police state.” He criticized the government for its lack of consultation with Canadian stakeholders and for not considering the implications of the bill if it passes.

“There’s no excuse for why the government has not consulted broadly the diverse stakeholders,” he said. “The government has not thought this through. It has not thought about how it will enforce these provisions.”

“There’s a fine line between protecting creators and a police state.”

Downloading on the rise

According to the latest survey from Statistics Canada, one in five Canadians aged 16 and older said he or she had downloaded or watched TV or movies over the internet, an increase from 12 per cent in 2005.

The percentage of Canadians who downloaded music — either paid or for free — also increased from 37 per cent to 45 per cent in the two-year span. Part of that increase can be attributed to a change in methodology, as Statistics Canada for the first time included 16- and 17-year-olds in the study, a demographic more likely to download media than older groups.

Critics feared the bill will mirror the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which similarly brought in restrictive measures and opened the door for copyright owners to enact huge lawsuits against violators.

Prentice has said on several occasions that Canada’s Copyright Act must be amended to bring the country into compliance with the World Intellectual Property Organization treaty it signed in 1996. The act was last overhauled in 1997.

The minister was forced to retreat on introducing the bill in December after being hit with major public opposition. More than 20,000 people joined a protest group started on social networking site Facebook by University of Ottawa internet and e-commerce Prof. Michael Geist, an outspoken critic of the bill.

The opposition to the legislation has only grown since then, with the Facebook group counting more than 40,000 members now.

Canadian artists, librarians and students, as well as a business coalition made up of some of Canada’s biggest companies — including Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp., as well as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. — have expressed their opposition to any legislation that imposes harsh copyright restrictions.

Opposition widespread

The chorus of opposition was joined last week by a coalition of consumer groups — including Option consommateurs, Consumers Council of Canada, Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), and Online Rights Canada (OnlineRights.ca) — that wrote a letter to the two ministers. The consumer groups expressed dismay they had not been consulted on the legislation.

Prentice responded to questioning in the House of Commons last week by saying he would not introduce the bill until he and Heritage Minister Josée Verner were satisfied that it struck the right balance between consumers and copyright holders.

Geist has repeatedly attacked the government on his blog for its lack of consultation with the Canadian public on the issue. However, Prentice has met with U.S. trade representatives and entertainment industry lobbyists to discuss the legislation.

“Prentice should be honest about the core anti-circumvention rules that are likely to mirror the DMCA and run counter to the concerns of business, education and consumer groups,” Geist wrote on his blog. “Those rules are quite clearly ‘Born in the USA.'”

The government said a second reading of the legislation wouldn’t occur until the next sitting of the house. With the government breaking soon for the summer, such a reading would not occur until the fall.