Digital Locks: What They Are and Why You Should Care about Them

23 Jun

By now you’ve probably heard of the Copyright Modernization Act, better known as Bill C-11, Canada’s new copyright bill that was first proposed in September 2011 and is currently in the final stages of being reviewed. The bill was created to update the Copyright Act in order to adapt it to modern technology. For the most part, the bill isn’t all that bad. There is one part of the bill, however, that has caused a lot of controversy: the digital locks provision.

Before doing research on this subject, I had no idea what digital locks were. Because of the backlash this provision has caused, I wanted to find out exactly what digital locks are, what the provision says about them, and what that would mean for Canadians.

Digital Locks: What Are They?

Digital locks are a type of digital rights management (DRM) used by copyright owners to restrict the ways that people can use the content of products they purchase, such as DVDs, CDs, video games, and ebooks.

The goal of digital locks is to prevent people from pirating the product by limiting their access to the content of the product and making it so that they can’t read the content on their own. There are different methods that copyright owners use to achieve this. One method that is common is encryption, whereby the content is turned into a code that can only be deciphered by machines that are able to unlock it, such as DVD players.

The main concern of those that utilize digital locks is that if people have unrestricted access to the content, then they can make copies of the material and then distribute those copies to others. This is a problem because the copyright owner loses profits when people acquire pirated copies of the product instead of purchasing a legitimate copy.

Despite these measures, people have been successful in breaking digital locks, thus allowing them to use the content as they please. This inspired the digital locks provision of Bill C-11 that specifically targets the breaking of digital locks.

The Digital Locks Provision:

Bill C-11 is a long and complicated bill, with the digital locks provision not being any different. In a nutshell, if Bill C-11 were passed, breaking digital locks would be illegal.

Up to this point, breaking digital locks has been legal in Canada. However, these digital lock provisions would change that. This provision would allow copyright owners to take legal action when a person breaks a digital lock because of the potential for them to copy and distribute the material, even if they haven’t actually done so.

However, Bill C-11 would not make copyright owners obligated to use digital locks on their products. It is the copyright owner’s choice to use a digital lock on their product, just like it is our choice of whether or not to purchase that product.

How Does that Affect Canadians?

One of the biggest problems with the digital locks provision is that it actually violates other rights that are established by Bill C-11. Earlier in the bill, Canadians are given free dealing rights, which allow people to make copies of legally acquired products for their own personal use as long as they do not illegally distribute the copies. With the digital locks provision, however, this right is removed in the case that the content is protected with a digital lock; “What the bill gives with one hand, it taketh away with the other”. This means that if a product you purchase contains a digital lock, you will not be allowed to break the lock and make a copy of it for your own private use.

To put this into perspective, some things Canadians would not be allowed to do if a digital lock was used include:

  • Break the digital lock
  • Make a backup copy of a DVD on their computer, iPad, etc.
  • Upload the content of a CD onto their computer or iPod
  • Copy a CD or DVD onto a blank disk
  • Make a backup copy of an ebook on another device
  • Make a backup copy of a video game
  • Record and make a copy of television shows, including both live and on-demand airings
  • Copy online textbooks or other material to another device for educational purposes

If you were caught doing any of these things, you would be fined anywhere from $100 to $5000.

In addressing the issue the provision, Charlie Angus, the NDP’s critic on digital issues, makes a good point: by implementing these digital lock provisions, the government is essentially favouring the copyright owners over the public’s right to use their possessions.

My question is this: Why should people who legitimately acquire a product not be allowed to make a copy of it for their own use? Why should we not be allowed to put music on our iPod or watch a movie on our computer? The majority of Canadians would not illegally distribute a product, so why should they be punished for the actions of the few that would?

Throughout the process of Bill C-11 being reviewed, the government has failed to make any changes to the digital locks provision. As it is in the final stages of being reviewed, these are questions we might continue to ask ourselves for quite some time.

This video from CTV News takes a look at this issue and how it affects DVD owners.


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