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Copyright or Copy-Wrong? Senior Caught Up in Sticky Legislation

November 6, 2016 7:23 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman

Computer Keyboard

A woman uses her computer keyboard to type while surfing the Internet in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, December, 19, 2012. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

NEEPAWA, Man. — This week, an 86-year-old woman became the face of Canada’s new copyright infringement legislation. Christine McMillan is being told she has to pay up for a pirated version of Metro 2033, a first-person shooter game in which survivors of nuclear war must kill mutants, that was downloaded from her IP address. She is one of an unknown number of Canadians who have received threatening letters on behalf of copyright holders, known as the Notice and Notice regime, following changes to Canada’s copyright laws.

McMillan’s story was reported by CBC’s Go Public program and she says that she has never heard of the game, has no desire to play it and didn’t download it. She also says that she’s the only one who has access to her computer.

The new legislation came into effect January 2, 2015 and requires Internet service providers (ISPs) to forward any letters they receive from copyright holders to their customers. In McMillan’s case, she was forwarded two emails in May, both from a private company called Canadian Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement (CANIPRE). The letters didn’t set out a specific payment for illegally downloading the game, but said she could be liable for a fine of up to $5,000. She was given the option of entering her credit card number and paying immediately.

It sounds like a scam, but it isn’t. Well, not really.

The goal of the legislation was to create a quick and easy way of letting users know that their IP address was used for illegal downloads, but the end result has been a “dragnet cash grab,” according to one tech expert quoted by CBC.

The companies issuing the letters, like CANIPRE, say that the wording of their letters has been approved by lawyers and is fully in compliance with the law. Which is true, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t deceiving.

No one knows how many of these letters have been sent out and how many users pay, but it’s probably a lot. Go Public talked to the owner of CANIPRE, who said that on a busy day, he’ll get 400 calls and emails from people who have received a notice. He added that most of them settle and since the Notice and Notice regime started two years ago, his company has collected about $500,000 for its clients. He wouldn’t say how many letters have been sent out, how many users have settled or the value of the average settlement.

The big ISPs haven’t disclosed how many letters they have forwarded to their customers either, but earlier this year, TekSavvy, a small Canadian-based provider with about 250,000 customers, told the Financial Post that it processes about 5,000 notices a day.

The letters are meant to prey on the fears of unsuspecting Internet users. While copyright holders can track IP addresses, it’s almost impossible to tie the download to a specific individual, especially given the time elapsed between the infringement and the notice.

In response to Go Public’s request, the federal ministry of innovation, science and economics said, “The Notice and Notice regime does not impose any obligations on a subscriber who receives a notice and it does not require the subscriber to contact the copyright owner or the intermediary. There is no legal obligation to pay any settlement offered by a copyright owner.”

However, copyright holders can still take a downloader to court, but the case would be tried as a civil, not criminal case.

The added problem is that it’s hard to know what legitimate penalties should be, as no cases under the new legislation have gone to court. In the past, damages awarded by Canadian courts in piracy cases have generally been close to the cost of legal purchase, seldom reaching the $5,000 maximum allowed by the law.

We can all agree that people should receive compensation for the works they have created and in this day and age, there are plenty of options for obtaining legal, convenient downloads of copyrighted material. However, being bullied by big firms isn’t right either and I hope that there will be some changes when the legislation undergoes its next review, scheduled for 2017.