Bill C-11: Through the Lens of Social Norms

Bill C-11: Through the Lens of Social Norms

The Copyright Modernization Act (Bill C-11) has generated much discussion on its merits and deficiencies. However, one issue that commentators have not discussed in depth is the relationship between laws and social norms. Specifically, whether any amendments to copyright law in Canada will have an effect on user behaviour given the social acceptability of copyright infringing activities like music file sharing. Accordingly, this commentary looks at the social norms around copyright and discusses the potential effectiveness of Bill C-11 in combating copyright infringement if it conflicts with social norms. This discussion also suggests how a university community can play an important role in lining up social norms with laws in a symbiotic fashion to encourage adherence to copyright principles.

The Power of Norms

The research on social norms suggests that people generally obey the law because they think it is the right thing to do. In contrast, laws that starkly contradict social norms may encourage non-compliance and create criminogenic effects.[1] If the sociological and psychological research is correct, then the ability of Bill C-11 to single-handedly combat online copyright infringement will fall short. For instance, any attempt to curtail copyright infringement through the legal reinforcement of technological protection measures may have little effect if individuals do not believe in the efficacy of these technologies and the laws to begin with.

When the law is in line with social norms however, the law is typically abided by and enforcement is relatively easy given that the law is socially accepted. If social norms are not aligned with laws, disobedience is more probable, and given the scale of online music file sharing, enforcement will also be difficult without great costs.[2] To take an example, we believe that murder is intrinsically wrong and society does not have any problems complying with laws against murder. When it does happen, we inherently believe that the law should punish those who commit murder and we believe that murderers should be socially condemned. Even if there was no law against murder, it is unlikely that individuals would begin to kill one another – the social sanctions and innate understanding about appropriate conduct regarding taking another’s life would guide individuals.

 Universities: The Alignment of Norms with Law

These social norms and sanctions are simply not as strong with online music file sharing and copyright law. Nonetheless, smaller communities, rather than the government at large, have the ability to foster respect for intellectual property without strict recourse to the law. Take the example of university rules around plagiarism and academic integrity, which, as opposed to copyright laws, are often most salient for students. Students comply with academic rules and properly attribute their research not because of any particular legal justification, but also because of the social stigma in the academic community around those who plagiarize. The sanctions for plagiarism that a student would receive from university administration punish much in the same way that the law does. In addition, there is the social consequence of risking one’s career and having their work discredited, which is enough to deter most from plagiarizing. Hence, it is this interaction between regulatory consequences and social sanctions that likely affects behaviour.

As well, in one survey,[3] college students thought that file sharing was common practice and didn’t have any problems with it. However, they said that it would be less socially acceptable if those who did so were subject to shaming penalties, such as having their names published, and had their university Internet privileges taken away.[4] As a consequence, the survey results suggest that universities have a role to take in aligning social norms with the law by applying social sanctions to those who use the school’s Internet to engage in illicit online music file sharing. These two examples illustrate that, at least within the university community, there are many opportunities for strong social sanctions to effectively hinder infringing music downloads without strict recourse to formal laws or enforcement.

What is Next for Bill C-11?

This commentary is not asserting any justifications for the social norms of society, nor is it arguing that Bill C-11 will be an unsuccessful piece of legislation in addressing the challenges of the Internet and technology. However, what is necessary to understand is that Bill C-11 alone will likely not be enough to limit copyright infringement in the digital era. Social norms are a powerful determinative factor in dictating human behaviour. As a result, the challenges that technology and the Internet present must not only be addressed through the law but through an understanding of our social norms and interactions.


Alexander Ly is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School and is currently enrolled in Osgoode's Law & Social Change: Law & Music course. As part of the course requirements, students are asked to write a blog on a topic of their choice.


[1] Mark F. Schultz, “Copynorms: Copyright and Social Norms” (27 September 2006), online: SSRN <> at 38.

[2] Ben Depoorter, Francesco Parisi  Sven Vanneste, “Problems with the Enforcement of Copyright Law: Is there a Social Norm Backlash?” (2005) 12 International Journal of the Economics of Business 361 at 362.

[3] Yuval Feldman & Janice Nadler, “The Law and Norms of File Sharing” (2006) 43 San Diego L Rev 577 at 608

[4] Ibid at 578.