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The (legal) music fades out for Canadians

Headshot of Barrie McKenna


Internet entrepreneur Gary Fung fancies himself a budding Sergey Brin or Larry Page, the Google co-founders.

In Mr. Fung's view of the world, his Vancouver-based company, isoHunt Inc., is essentially a search engine.

The catch is that 95 per cent of what goes on at involves what most Western countries regard as piracy - unauthorized file sharing. Want the latest maps for your GPS, a copy of the movie Twilight, video games or just about any song ever digitized? At any time, you'll find links to more than 90 million files, neatly catalogued and free for the taking.

Not surprisingly, the site is wildly popular. IsoHunt is one of the world's most visited so-called BitTorrent websites, which use special software to index files and enable users to browse and download whatever digital content they want. As many as 100 million unique visitors go to the site every year, putting it among the 200 most popular websites of any kind on the planet.

Canada has earned a dubious distinction as a world hub for illegitimate file-sharing websites and a leader in Internet piracy. Canada now hosts five of the most popular pirate sites in the world.

And other unauthorized sharing sites say they have shifted operations to Canada, specifically to exploit the friendlier legal environment.

Rightly or wrongly, Canada is seen as a country where the laws to combat digital piracy are weak, ineffective or simply non-existent, argues Barry Sookman, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP and a leading Canadian expert on copyright.

"Canada is viewed as a pirate haven," says Mr. Sookman, who has done work for the Canadian recording industry.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration put Canada on its blacklist of shame - a "priority watch list" of intellectual property laggards, joining the likes of China, Russia and Venezuela.

It would be easy to dismiss the U.S. action - an early precursor to retaliation - as yet another bit of American hypocrisy on the trade front. After all, more than a quarter of the visitors to many of these sites are Americans.

But that would be wrong. Canada, which has repeatedly promised but so far failed to deliver on copyright reform, isn't just out of step with the United States, but with much of the Western world.

"There are real copyright problems," Mr. Sookman concedes. "It doesn't just affect Canadians. It's a trade problem."

IsoHunt, meanwhile, is facing legal challenges. It has been sued in California by Columbia Pictures. And at home, it has sparred in court with the Canadian Recording Industry Association, which has demanded (so far unsuccessfully) that the company take down links to copyrighted material. Authorities and copyright owners say they need a lot more tools to disrupt piracy in Canada, including the ability to force sites such as isoHunt to remove links to copyrighted material without lengthy legal proceedings. They also want stiff penalties for Internet service providers who turn a blind eye to unauthorized sharing over their networks.

Ottawa acknowledges it must update its laws to meet the digital challenge. Canada has promised reform in several Throne Speeches. Those efforts have so far produced a lot of talk and thousands of pages of reports, but no law. Ottawa's last attempt at copyright reform died, along with the government, at the end of 2007.

Now, the Harper government is at it again. It recently completed a national consultation, garnering responses from nearly 5,000 individuals and groups. Industry Minister Tony Clement wants a bill by December.

Experts are dubious because so many earlier efforts failed.

"Canada has made itself a victim of this," said Eric Schwartz, speaking at a recent forum in Washington, organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Canada Institute. "It has allowed the business to get established and opposition to grow."

There are good reasons for Canada to embrace reform - and not only because the Americans and Europeans are pushing Ottawa to do it.

The world has gone digital. And there's now an explosion of legitimate download sites in the U.S. and Europe, including ground-breaking music sites and But you can't use them in Canada.

These and other businesses are choosing to bypass the market entirely, in part because of licensing problems.

And the creative industries that produce music, software and the like - industries that contribute significantly more to the economy than BitTorrent sites - may also shun Canada if nothing is done.

That hurts Canadians, and most people don't even know it's happening.


Worlwide rank / Website / Visits per month / host location

3. / Isohunt / 5.1-million / Vancouver, B.C.

4. / Torrentz / 2.5-million / Laval, Que.

6. / BT Junkie / 2.4-million / Sweden and Canada

9. / BTMon / 608,000 / Brampton, Ont.

10. / TorrentPortal / 474,000 / Vancouver, B.C.


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