Guilty By Assumption

Ho boy, I did it again, didn’t I? Apologies for not ranting for the last four months. Worst part is, I had stuff to rant about, just didn’t put it down in electrons. I promise I’ll try to stop leaving you hanging for so long. It’ll never, ever, EVER, EEEEVER happen again. Thankyouverymuch.

Now down to business: the crosshairs are locked, the target’s confirmed and the bomber group is in transit. Our target for today’s rant:

The Canadian Heritage Ministry

Yes, folks, the Canadian Government is at it again. Have you heard of the Blank Media Levy? If not, you’re about to.

In 1997, just prior to the last federal election, the government snuck some changes into the Copyright Act which allowed legal, private copying of music CDs and tapes. This is all well and good, since it basically legalized something everyone has been doing for decades, but in exchange for this new “freedom”, a levy is being collected on all recordable media, such as audio cassettes and recordable CDs. This levy is currently proposed to be $0.25 per 15 minutes for analog recording media, and $0.50 per 15 minutes for digital media. See the table below for some examples of the additional cost this will bring to you.

Media Approximate
Pre-Levy Price
Proposed
Levy Amount
New Cost Increase
C92 Cassette $1.00 $1.75 $2.75 175%
74 min CD-R $2.00 $2.50 $4.50 125%
124 min DAT $11.00 $4.50 $15.50 40%

The intent of this levy is, ostensibly, to recoup losses due to piracy. A noble gesture, to be sure, but one that is entirely misplaced. Here’s why:

  • The majority of big-time music piracy goes on outside of Canada (primarily in Asia), then is shipped in. These big operations press regular CDs, just like a music company, not CD-Rs. The artists will never see money this way, levy or not.
  • The money collected from the levy will be distributed to the likes of SOCAN, CMRRA and CIRPA, to be distributed to their members, likely on the basis of unit sales. Yeah, like Celine Dion, Anne Murray and Gordon Lightfoot need more of our money.
  • Related to the above, un-signed artists trying to promote themselves using CD-Rs or DATs will have to pay a levy to Dion, Lightfoot, et al for the privilege of trying to elevate themselves to the same level.
  • There will be virtually no exceptions to the levy. The majority of CD-Rs are purchased by computer users for data backup, and will never see any audio data. So SOCAN is going to get money for our computer backups.
  • The levy has not been finalized or implemented yet, but there are provisions in the law for collecting the levy retroactively to 1 January 1999. Needless to say, retailers have already passed the levy on to the consumer. And there’s no provision in the law for returning any money, should the actual levy be lower than the proposed one. So imagine of the levy is reduced (as is currently proposed by a vocal minority) to about $0.025 (i.e., 2.5¢) per CD-R. The retailers just ripped us off for $2.475 on each CD-R they’ve sold, with the government’s blessing. And looking at how gas prices fail to fall in Canada, do you really think the retailers would lower the prices by that much? Don’t even get me started on how the production costs of CDs and CD-Rs have fallen, but retail prices haven’t.
  • Naturally, the levy won’t be implemented at the cash register like a tax, it’ll be hidden in the overall cost. The GST was supposed to eliminate hidden manufacturing taxes. The Liberals were supposed to eliminate the GST…
  • In effect, this levy says that we’re all guilty of piracy (the official term for all of us is “The Home Taping Regime”).

So what does all of this mean to Joe Average? For starters, you now get to pay for the privilege of taping the CD you legally purchased at HMV, so you can listen to it in your CD-less car. Or for making a “mix” tape of your favourite tunes for your personal enjoyment.

(Here’s a scenario that would be funny if it weren’t so scary: imagine that the levy was based upon digital compression. A three minute song can be encoded into a 50kB MIDI file. This means that a CD-R could hold approximately 13,000 minutes of music. Thus, the levy on a single $2.00 CD-R could be calculated as $0.50 × (13000 ÷ 15), or $433.33 per disc.)

Consider that the Copyright Act already allows “The Home Taping Regime” (that’s us) to make one, legal backup copy of any audio tape, CD or computer program we purchase. So now we’re paying extra for our legal backups.

Want to have some fun? Call up a record company and ask them for permission to use one of their songs in a mix tape you’re making for your own, personal use. After the receptionist stops laughing, he or she will either politely tell you, or forward you to someone who’ll politely tell you, to fuck off.

Remember what I said about retailers upping their prices? I did a little experiment. I purchased a bunch of video cassettes for $3.99 each at a retailer which shall remain nameless on 21 December 1998. I stopped in on 31 December 1998, about 1pm, and sure enough, the prices were already up to $6.99, 11 hours before the retroactive date of the proposed levy that hasn’t been set yet, even though video tapes aren’t covered by the Blank Media Levy (it’s not a tax)! This just goes to show how confused retailers are by this thing.

Want more examples of legitimate users of recording media getting screwed? A university professor is now going to have to pay the levy for the privilege of recording his/her lectures. Small- and medium-sized companies have discovered that CD-R is a great way for them to backup data; they’ll have to pay the levy for audio recordings, which will never come near any of the CD-Rs they purchase. A small-time DJ will be charged the levy in order to bring cheap, easily replaceable audio cassette recordings of the music, instead of expensive CDs, to his/her gigs. Get the point?

One last example, from the heart. I occasionally work as a freelance graphics designer, web site designer and consultant, and general computer geek. When I’m working on a graphics-intensive project, I’ll often submit my work to my employer on a CD-R. It’s cheaper and easier than handing them 10 or 20 floppy disks. Now I may have to pay an extra $2.50 per CD-R that I purchase. Even if it ends up as a Frisbee™/coaster. And depending on the length of the project and how many times they want to see the work in progress (not to mention how many coasters the CD burner creates), I can easily use five or more CD-Rs on one project. Now why do you suppose this extra $12.50 out of my pocket would piss me off? And I have never in my life copied a CD onto a CD-R.

That’s not to say I’ve never copied a CD onto an audio cassette. 9 out of 10 people who say they haven’t done that are lying. But let’s face facts: most of us are honest enough to support our favourite artists. If we like it, we buy the disc. If we tape it from someone else’s CD, we were never going to buy the disc in the first place. And how many of us have taped a CD, swearing we’re never going buy it ourselves, only to find it growing on you to the point that you do go out and buy it? I know it’s happened to me…

What I’ve covered here is just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on. Like, if you can save an MP3 on your hard disk, does that mean that it’s an audio recording medium, subject to this levy? (Let’s see here: MP3 works out to about 1MB per minute. On my own 6.3GB HD, that’s about 6,300 minutes of music. At $0.50 per 15 minutes, that comes out to $0.50 × (6300 ÷ 15), or $210, on a disk drive that only cost about $350 to start with. Scary, eh?)

Want to do something about this bullshit? Here’s a few links to get you started:

And finally, you’re probably wondering why I’ve declared The Canadian Heritage Ministry as the target, when most of my shots have been levelled at SOCAN and Gordon Lightfoot. Well, I hate Gordon Lightfoot, and SOCAN and I have a dysfunctional relationship going back to my college days, but the levy was the Heritage Ministry’s idea, after lobbying from SOCAN, CMRRA, CIRPA and their ilk. Thanks Sheila.

And remember, it’s not a tax, it’s a levy. Riiiiiight.

Glossary:
SOCAN Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada
CMRRA Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency
CIRPA The Canadian Independent Record Production Association

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