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Ottawa split on ‘iPod tax’

By in News

CUP Ottawa Bureau Chief

OTTAWA (CUP) — Is the iPod tax just another packaged political phrase of 2010, or is it a real expense consumers may soon have to face?

According to radio ads released by the federal Conservative Party in mid-December, it’s “a brand-new tax that will have you paying up to $75 more for iPods, smartphones, personal video recorders, MP3 players and just about anything with a hard drive.”

The ads have Canadians wondering if the tax even exists yet and where it came from.

According to Industry Canada, the iPod tax idea stems from the levy on audio cassettes, CDs and other blank audio recording media that currently exists and was set in 1997 by the Copyright Board of Canada. Proceeds collected from the levy are disbursed to members of the Canadian Private Copying Collective, a group that represents recording artists and music publishers across the country.

The CPCC has requested the legislation be extended to include MP3 players and other storage devices on multiple occasions since 2003.

Last March, NDP MP Charlie Angus brought the issue back to Parliament Hill when he presented a private members’ bill that proposed having the tariff legally applied to MP3 players and other storage devices.

The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage soon after adopted a motion — supported by Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois committee members, as well as Conservative chair Gary Schellenberger — that called on the government to extend the existing levy to digital music recorders in an attempt to compensate music creators.

The committee’s recommendation was presented to the House of Commons in April 2010, and was passed with the support of all three opposition parties.

Meanwhile, MPs are still working on Bill C-32, the copyright reform legislation originally introduced by the Conservative government in June 2010.

But Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law and professor at the University of Ottawa, emphasized the difference between the two similar, yet separate issues.

“The proposal is not part of Bill C-32 and seems unlikely to be included,” he said in an email. “The Conservatives and the Liberals have both stated their opposition to it.”

Indeed, they have. While the Tories’ ad slammed all three parties and their leaders for backing the levy, the Liberals released a statement on Dec. 16 that indicated their opposition to the iPod tax, explaining it is “not sustainable in a world of changing technology.”

In his blog, however, Geist pointed to perceived ambiguity in the committee’s motion and statements made at the committee table by MPs who simply supported the motion to be able to have the debate.

“My read is that it is certainly possible to conclude that the Liberals did not flip-flop,” he wrote. “They voted for the principle of compensation for artists.”

But getting past the politics — in its basic form, is the iPod tax a good idea?

“I’m skeptical of extending the levy,” Geist said, pointing to an earlier blog post he wrote on the issue.

There, he noted such potential consequences as extending the levy to video, which could be costly, and the impact on competitive consumer pricing in Canada.

“Moreover, I have noted that many proponents of extending the levy are reluctant to acknowledge that doing so should fully legalize non-commercial, personal downloading, engaging in a policy bait-and-switch where they use file sharing as the basis to obtain the levy extension, but then do not legalize the sharing,” he wrote.

No new decisions on the iPod tax and related copyright reform have been made as Parliament remains on hiatus for the holidays. The House of Commons will reconvene on Jan. 31.

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Jesse Brown of TVO’s Search Engine interviewed NDP MP Charlie Angus about the proposed “iPod tax” earlier this year. Click here to listen to that interview or use the embedded flash player below.

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