Conflict of interest regarding copyrights

Controversy over copyright legislation in Canada hit the media this week after news surfaced that Patricia Neri, director general of Copyright Policy at Heritage Canada, was removed from her post amid allegations of a conflict of interest.

Neri, one of the officials behind recently passed legislation that criminalizes camcording in theaters, is said to be romantically involved with copyright lobbyist Doug Frith, prexy of the Canadian Motion Picture Distributors’ Assn.

Critics have suggested that the camcording legislation is strikingly similar to that proposed by the CMPDA and the MPAA, and that through Neri, those orgs may have had undue influence on the process.

According to Ottawa newspaper The Hill Times, Neri was shuffled out of her post in early September to become an advisor to another Heritage official, with “duties still to be determined.”

“I do not have any information about a conflict of interest in this matter,” said Heritage spokesman Charles Drouin. “The only thing we do know is that she has been appointed special advisor to the assistant deputy minister of Cultural Affairs.”

A call to Frith’s office was returned by the MPAA. “We have looked thoroughly at this situation,” said Seth Oster, the MPAA’s executive VP of corporate communications. “We do not believe anything inappropriate took place. End of statement.”

The move comes at a particularly delicate time for the contentious issue of copyright in Canada.

Many agree that Canada’s copyright legislation is woefully out of date, but a wide variety of stakeholders are calling for conflicting changes.

“The government is well aware of the need to move expeditiously with copyright reform,” said Drouin, “and it intends to do so after having thoroughly analyzed and consulted on the issue.”

Proposed legislation to revise the Copyright Act is in the offing in coming months, but because this is a minority government and an election could be called in the near future, the ruling Conservatives cannot afford to alienate too many.

“I think the government has to move carefully here.” said Canadian copyright expert, academic and public commentator Michael Geist, who has in his blog expressed concerns that the U.S. copyright lobby has too much influence in Canada. “We could do worse things than do nothing.”

Regarding Neri’s removal from her post, Geist said: “There is a perceived conflict, and the government’s guidelines don’t differentiate between actual and perceived conflicts. My understanding is that Ms. Neri was briefing a new minister (of Heritage, Josee Verner, appointed in August) and the Prime Minister on issues affecting legislation this fall while having a direct relationship with a leading lobbyist.”

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