About that blank media levy

This weekend my 6 year old and I made a mix CD of his favourite music. We’re swapping it with a handful of other families we know who value music that is palatable to both kids and parents. This type of thing is how we discovered a mutual parent-child love the pop-punk band ALL (we subsequently bought 3 CDs) and the fact that a young soprano is perfect for singing backup to “Video Killed the Radio Star” (we have not bought, nor are we likely to buy, any Buggles CDs).

Unlike the mix tapes I made in junior high in the US, trying to record Dee-Lite and Billy Joel off the radio without getting too much of the announcer’s voice overlapping the end of the tracks, these CDs are more or less legal, thanks to the blank media levy we have in Canada. The same blank media levy that, as I learned at London Drugs this weekend, just increased by $.08 to $.29/CD, making the right to copy music more expensive than the actual media that was conferring the right. (Okay, apparently it’s actually called the Private Copying Levy, but I’ve always heard it called the blank media levy in casual conversation, so for the purposes of this post that’s what I’m sticking to.)

Sheltered USAmerican that I was, I had never heard of blank media levies before coming to library school in Canada. When I learned about this policy tool – and I wish I could remember what class this was in – I was amazed that someone would try to think of a way to make media copying for not-for-profit use legal rather than just ignore the fact that it happens and/or selectively prosecute to try to make an example of people who are doing what everyone was doing.

How Canadian! Sort of resigning to real life, accepting the futility of trying to enforce absolutist laws, and instead attempting to somehow apologize to those whose rights may have been infringed. Back in the US we just denied that regular people broke the laws and then villified those select terrible rotten apples who did nasty things like download copyrighted music.

Of course, there are problems with the blank media levy. For example, a lot of digital media is used for purposes other than duplication of copyrighted materials. It can be argued that private copying – e.g., backups – should perhaps be legal with no additional fees. Small artists who distribute their own music are generally under- or un-represented in the Canadian Private Copyright Collective, and thus get less than their fair share of the levy.

The levy is clearly an imperfect tool.  But a kind of interesting one, in my opinion, when compared with the blunt axe wielded by the RIAA in the US.

With all the hullabaloo about C-61 last year, I was surprised that a hike of CD levy went so under the radar. Yes, Michael Geist and perhaps a few other bloggers mentioned it, but I didn’t really notice, and neither did mainstream media outlets, to my knowledge.

Perhaps because I was so stricken with the sheer, well, difference of the levy approach, when contrasted with the lawsuit approach, I was disappointed that so few people mentioned the existing levy when discussing copyright reform last year. I admit that I wasn’t even really clear on whether C-61, if passed, would even get rid of the levy, or just add axe to tax.

People here seem not to care much for the blank media levy, and certainly no one in my circles has been discussing extending it to, say, MP3 players, as an alternative to DMCA-style copyright reform. Are we just following CRIA’s example, or is there something else going on that is encouraging copyright folk to ditch rather than reform the levy system? Because, when compared with suing teenaged kids and single mums, the levy seems like a viable option somehow. Perhaps setting up the levy vs. DMCA is a false dichotomy. But will the US let Canada get away with neither? I’m not convinced.

-Greyson

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Filed under copyright, digitization, IP, media democracy

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