Exposing copyright law to public scrutiny

Michael Geist

Michael Geist became a global authority on intellectual property and copyright law by examining highly debatable issues in a very public conversation.

by Tony Martins

As technologies accelerate and diversify the ways in which we access and share information, intellectual property and copyright law are increasingly becoming key research fields with immediate consequences for the public.

That’s why Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, has made his celebrated work open and easily accessible to the public.

Geist sees public education as central to his responsibility as a law professor. “I have the opportunity to educate and engage far beyond the classroom, and I think it is critically important to do that.” He’s an equally big believer in open access research.

With weekly syndicated columns, a popular blog and regular appearances in the media and before Parliament, Geist maintains a sizable public presence and has garnered a number of prizes and distinctions. Most recently he was named one of the 50 most influential people in intellectual property byManaging Intellectual Property magazine and received an IP3 award from Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C. public interest group that defends citizens’ rights in the emerging digital culture.

“The issues with which I grapple have attracted growing attention, particularly from younger Canadians who recognize the importance of digital issues in their daily lives,” Geist explains. “I’m happy to play a role in educating those interested in learning more.”

Geist’s website, SpeakOutOnCopyright.ca, is a prime example of how he cultivates public dialogue around his research. The site draws attention to what Geist sees as a “giant caveat” in the federal government’s otherwise balanced Copyright Modernization Act, which was tabled in June of 2010.

“The foundational principle of the new bill remains that any time a digital lock is used—whether on books, movies, music or electronic devices—the lock trumps virtually all other rights,” Geist details on the site’s home page. “I re-launched SpeakOutOnCopyright.ca as a platform to give people information and tools to speak out in support of the balanced provisions and to fix the problematic digital lock rules.”

Although Geist’s work often takes him into the political realm, he says that remaining politically neutral is “relatively easy given that the issues I focus on—copyright, privacy, telecom, the Internet—are not ‘right or left’ issues. I have been supportive of policies promoted by Conservatives, Liberals and the NDP. I’ve also criticized each party when I thought it appropriate. My interest in these issues lies in getting the policies right, not in supporting a particular party.”

On the issue of Canada’s performance in the world of intellectual property and copyright law, Geist argues that we fare better than some critics might lead us to believe.

“Several surveys have placed us in the top tier of countries around the world, and we are compliant with our international obligations,” Geist notes. “That said, there is certainly room for improvement.”

“On the policy front, Canadian copyright reform proposals have gradually improved over the past five years, and I think part of that stems from a better understanding of the need for balance,” Geist added. “Similarly, we’ve seen good privacy decisions from the Privacy Commissioner, anti-spam legislation passed and courts asking the right questions on technology policy.”

Geist identifies two related, positive results from public accessibility to his research: more public engagement and better outcomes in legislation and government policy.

“I think we’ve witnessed both in recent years,” Geist says. “Thousands of Canadians have participated in government consultations on copyright, and hundreds of thousands have signed petitions on Internet service provider frustrations. The growing public interest has certainly had an impact on policy.”

That same growing interest seems to have an empowering effect on Geist. He has been digging into copyright issues at uOttawa for 12 years now and shows no signs of fatigue.

“One of the most exciting parts of the job has long been that the area is constantly evolving and creating new challenges,” Geist explained. “It offers a chance to implement new solutions since not everything has been decided yet.”

Although not everything has been decided, almost everything is affected.

“Copyright law has an impact on everyone’s daily life,” Geist concludes. “From our culture to communication, from education to entertainment, copyright rules are there every step of the way. This is why it is so essential to get the issues right by striking a balance.” 

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