But what if the government made owning lockpicks illegal? It's your house, you have a right to enter it, and you don't intend to steal anything, but you couldn't get back in because the tool you need, for this perfectly legal act, has been outlawed.
Not a great situation. Hold that thought.
Last week Industry Minister Jim Prentice and Heritage Minister Josee Verner introduced Bill C-61, the long awaited revamped copyright reform bill. It's really a Canadian redraft of the ten-year-old U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Well, more correctly, it's an imperfect clone with some unfortunate genetic mutations.
On the surface some of the changes seem benign. It looks, for example, like Canadians will be able to time shift video, copy music to an iPod or other MP3 player or format shift content (go from analog to digital versions). Those acts were not allowed under the DMCA and were rumoured not to be in an earlier version of Bill C-61. They were added as a substitute for true public consultation, which we were promised but never got.
But, the bill also provides for digital lock provisions. That basically means that you can do all those things, unless the content owner has put digital rights management (DRM) code on the media to prevent that - and the movie and music industries love DRM even though it's been proven to be junk science.
In the case of DRMed content, it would be illegal to break the DRM in order to time shift video, copy music or format shift content. That's true even if you bought legitimate copies of the content. Of course, those are activities legitimate owners of digital content do, and should be able to do, every day.
That's just like the government outlawing lockpicks. In the real world, as in the scenario I outlined at the top of the column, there are legitimate, legal uses for lockpicks - to gain access to stuff you own in your own home. Same in the digital world. Burning a CD of music you bought on the iTunes Music Store (which uses Fair Play DRM) and then re-importing the tracks as non-DRMed MP3 files would be, under the proposed bill, illegal even though you own the tracks.
This is important; it doesn't make the act of copying digital content you don't own illegal. It makes the digital lockpick itself illegal, used for whatever purpose, even if that purpose appears to be allowed under Bill C-61. So, the apparent and highly touted sops we got in the bill are just multi-coloured sprinkles hiding a poisoned jelly centre, to shift metaphors completely.
Even worse, some contemporary media formats (DVDs for example) are not covered by the Act's exemptions. So, while the act would allow you to make a copy of an old videocassette, if you ripped a DVD of Happy Gilmore to your iPhone you'd be a copyright infringer (and have dubious taste).
So, as many opponents of Bill C-61 have pointed out, Bill C-61 is, in many ways, worse than the DMCA, and the Canadian government seems to have learned nothing from it.
That ignorance is compounded by secretiveness around another document, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) which could allow border guards to search our mobile devices for digital content and could make it easier for the government to get customer data from Internet Service Providers.
If both move forward, Bill C-61 and the ACTA would mean the digital information world we imagined for ourselves will be greatly constrained and burdened, not by technology but by legislation of weak-willed politicians who are far more interested in pleasing the U.S. government, American industries and record labels than they are in listening to their own citizens.
The result will be a Canada that is crippled competitively and a digital future that is, itself, an imperfect version of what it could be with some unfortunate political mutations.