Senator seeks changes to copyright law to make tech giants pay news publishers
Proposed changes to copyright law in Canada are part of a new Senate bill that seeks to ensure news companies are paid by digital platforms like Google and Facebook for their content.
The bill, set to be introduced on Wednesday by Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan, comes amid a global conversation among governments, tech giants and media companies about how digital platforms should pay news companies that have been devastated over the decades by a loss of advertising revenue that has moved to online platforms.
During an interview with the Star, Carignan said he wanted to introduce the bill because the federal government is dragging its feet on making digital platforms pay for news.
“I think we need to fix it,” Carignan said. “It’s not fair in a system where somebody takes your work, free, and is using it to make money.”
The bill would amend the Copyright Act to specifically provide for compensation for the use of journalistic works.
Through the changes, media organizations would be able to collectively negotiate payment with platform providers — such as Google and Facebook — that have been designated by the government.
The remuneration would go to the group and it would be up to the collective to distribute the money.
If there is disagreement, the digital platforms or the journalistic organizations could appeal to the copyright board for a ruling. “That was the easiest way to do it properly,” Carignan said. “In the Copyright Act, we have a system and the system is working.”
The Liberal government has been mulling new rules to ensure media companies are paid by digital platforms but hasn’t yet provided extensive details on its plans. Senate bills rarely become law and the government is expected to introduce its own framework this year.
John Hinds, president of News Media Canada, a lobbying group pushing for remuneration for media companies, called the bill “a welcome thing,” but questioned whether Carignan’s was the right approach.
“Our preference has been a competition-based model, which we feel is a market-based solution based on the Australian model which has proven to be a much better deal for news publishers than the copyright solution … which is much more limited because it covers far less content,” he said.
Hinds also said going to the copyright board with an appeal can take a long time.
Daniel Bernhard, executive director of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an advocacy group, said he, too, isn’t a fan of the copyright model since he doesn’t think companies would end up being paid enough, but said “the senator is right about the urgency of the situation.”
“Canada’s media industry is dying and we’re facing a mass extinction event here,” he said.
Michael Geist, a copyright expert and law professor at the University of Ottawa, said he was “unconvinced” there should be compensation for media companies. He also said there are problems with the design of the Senate bill.
It’s unclear, under the framework, what content would require remuneration, Geist said, since the proposed bill excludes hyperlinks and Google and Facebook don’t often have entire articles posted to their platforms.
While Carignan said that a post to Facebook with just a headline, photo and blurb would be subject to remuneration for the media company, Geist disagreed.
The bill stipulates that if “a journalistic work or any substantial part thereof” is put up on a platform, it’s subject to payment. “I don’t think a link with a headline, and a sentence or two, or blurb, would be considered a substantial portion thereof,” Geist said.
He also disagreed with allowing the government to determine which platforms must pay.
“There’s no objective standards for what platforms might be captured by this,” he said. “It creates a very subjective process that is open to abuse.”
Australia has been embroiled in a battle with Facebook and Google over new rules that attempt to ensure media companies receive some of the advertising money that the digital platforms collect.
In Australia, under the proposed rules, media companies would be allowed to collectively bargain with Google and Facebook. If an agreement can’t be made, an arbitrator would choose between the final offers submitted by each side.
But under the Senate bill, the Copyright Board wouldn’t be forced to choose one final offer from either side; it could develop a new one, Carignan said.
Google and Facebook have objected to the model as it currently stands in Australia. Facebook has said it may bar Australians from sharing articles and Google has said it may no longer make its search engine available in the country, citing financial issues due to the new framework.
Media organizations across the world, including Torstar, which owns the Toronto Star, have been lobbying governments to make big tech companies that promote news articles on their websites share some of their advertising revenue with news publishers.
Multinational tech giants keep getting bigger at the expense of domestic media and competitiveness. This ongoing series looks at the challenge for governments, and how they should respond.