Last month, James Boyle penned a Financial Times column "radically" arguing for "evidence-based information policy." Specifically, Boyle proposed that European policymakers ought to rethink automatic intellectual property protection for materials produced by government bodies. Rather than blindly assume that any and all IP protection is beneficial, argued Boyle, policymakers should assess specific protections according to whether or not they actually create economic and social benefits.
This week Michael Geist makes a similar plea, arguing in his lastest Toronto Star column for an end to what's called "Crown copyright" in Canada -- a regime under which the public is obliged to ask permission to use government information. In the US, the information is "free" in the sense that the federal government cannot hold copyright in it. No permission is necessary -- and in many cases, it's made available at the cost of reproduction. As Boyle pointed out, this has resulted in considerable economic and social benefits. For example, weather data is available at cost, yet a "thriving private weather industry has sprung up which takes the publicly funded data as its raw material and then adds value to it." On the social benefit end, the fact that US weather data is "free" means it's available for scientists seeking to research weather patterns to warn of disasters like monsoons and tsunamis.
Geist adds two more thought-provoking examples, with a twist -- he underscores the effect Canada's Crown copyright permission regime has on what Terry Fisher would call "semiotic democracy":
[The] 9-11 Commission's report, released last year in the U.S., was widely available for free download, yet it also became a commercial success story as the book quickly hit the best seller list once offered for purchase by W.W. Norton, a well-regarded book publisher.
By comparison, a Canadian publisher seeking to release the forthcoming Gomery report as a commercial title would need permission from the government to do so. ...
The difference between the Canadian and the U.S. approach is just as pronounced in the documentary film arena. Consider, for example, a Canadian creating a film about a controversial political issue such as same sex marriage or gun control. The filmmaker might want to include clips from politicians speaking to the issue in the House of Commons.
After obtaining the desired video from the House of Commons, the filmmaker would be presented with a series of legal terms and conditions limiting its use to school-based private study, research, criticism, or review as well as news reporting on television and radio outlets that are licensed by the CRTC. Everything else, including any commercial use of the video, would require the prior written approval from the Speaker of the House.
Contrast this situation with one found in the U.S. Last year's controversial Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 featured a riveting scene in which a steady procession of members of the U.S. Congress rose to challenge the outcome of the 2000 U.S. Presidential election -- only to have then Vice-President Al Gore reject each in turn. While Moore faced challenges obtaining the necessary rights for some of the works that he included in his film, given the state of U.S. law, this segment was not one of them.
Geist closes the column by arguing that Canadians should not have to engage in Eyes on the Screen
-style civil disobedience to gain access to government information without permission -- it should be the law. If you're a Canadian citizen and you agree, consider supporting the end of Crown copyright along with other important reforms
aimed at realizing the benefits of protecting the public's part in copyright.