Digital Locks and the Automation of Virtue

From "Radical Extremism" to "Balanced Copyright": Canadian Copyright and the Digital Agenda, p. 247, Michael Geist, ed., Irwin Law, 2010

57 Pages Posted: 23 Jul 2012

See all articles by Ian R. Kerr

Ian R. Kerr

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section

Date Written: October 1, 2010


This chapter examines the policy of affording legal protection to digital locks — i.e., the use of technological protection measures by copyright owners to preclude people from using digital works in ways that they do not wish. Recognizing that all locks can be broken, many of those who employ digital locks have sought the further protection of law, lobbying lawmakers to make it illegal to circumvent digital locks.

The chapter begins with a series of historical and cultural vignettes, investigating the nature, purpose and symbolic significance of locks as they are used in society. The author then examines digital locks and the power afforded to keyholders to control others through the automation of permissions, in effect enabling or disabling the world we live in by setting terms and conditions for its use. The author then considers the effects of automating permissions, sketching the potential progression of a widespread digital lock strategy and what this might mean. The author goes on to ask how a broadly adopted digital lock strategy might affect us as moral actors who desire to do good things. In answering this question, the author demonstrates that a state sanctioned, unimpeded and widespread digital lock strategy would impair our moral development by impeding our ability and desire to cultivate the practical wisdom necessary for the acquisition of morally virtuous dispositions. Finally, the author briefly investigates Bill C-32, Canada’s proposal for sanctioning the use of digital locks and prohibiting their circumvention. Arguing that the flaws in Bill C-32 are symptomatic of the larger digital lock strategy, the author concludes that the proposed legislative solution is inelegant — a brute force formula that fails to achieve a balanced copyright framework.

The overarching conclusion is that excessive protection of digital locks places coercive limits on moral actors, preventing them from acquiring access to an adequate range of life’s options. There is no point in developing entire systems to protect creative works or other forms of property if the means by which this is achieved ultimately undermines moral authorship and the project of conscious self-creation.

Keywords: Bill C-11, Bill C-32, copyright

Suggested Citation

Kerr, Ian R., Digital Locks and the Automation of Virtue (October 1, 2010). From "Radical Extremism" to "Balanced Copyright": Canadian Copyright and the Digital Agenda, p. 247, Michael Geist, ed., Irwin Law, 2010, Available at SSRN:

Ian R. Kerr (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Street
Ottawa, K1N 6N5
613-562-5800 (Phone)

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