07 March, 2017

All Wrapped Up - Canadian Federal Court Decides on the Sharing of Pay-walled Copyright Works

While the European landscape has changed and clarified itself to a great degree in relation to the use of copyright protected content online (see more for example here, here and here), the rest of the world, comparatively at least, has stayed relatively quiet. One issue in particular, meaning the accessing of pay-walled or otherwise restricted content through sharing of that content to others without access to is is legal or not, has trickled through more than others. Many would argue that, while not definitive, the EU is quite established itself on where it stands on this, but our cousins across the pond in Canada have yet to fully cement themselves in this question, as can be illustrated by this recent decision in the Federal Court of Ontario.

The case of Ontario Ltd (Blacklock's Reporter) v. Canada (Attorney General) dealt with an online news agency, Blacklock's Reporter, which specializes in news surrounding, predominantly, the Canadian government. The Department of Finance, a part of the Canadian government, distributed two articles from Blacklock' within the Department without seeking consent. The contents of the article are largely irrelevant to the case, but Blacklock's does keep all of its contents behind a paywall, with a DOF employee accessing the relevant articles through a single subscription, subsequently sharing them internally within the DOF. Blacklock's then took the DOF to court over copyright infringement.

The Federal Court had to assess whether the rights in those works had been infringed, and if that use then was protected by fair dealing.

The court did not dispute the copyright in the works under section 29 of the Canadian Copyright Act (nor did the parties), but did raise questions as to whether Blacklock's assertion of their rights could amount to an abuse of those rights. The question therefore focussed on the aspect of fair dealing.

Canadian fair dealing covers only a narrow set of exceptions in section 29, particularly for research, private study, education, parody or satire. The DOF argued that their use was for research purposes and didn't therefore infringe Blaclock's rights.

Section 29 was further expanded on in the milestone case of CCH (discussed more here), which set a two-part test on whether a use was protected by fair dealing: 1. Whether the dealing is for the purpose of “research” or “private study”, also known as an allowable purpose; and 2. Whether the dealing is “fair”. The latter, whether a particular use is fair, involved certain factors that the courts ought to consider:

"1. The purpose of the dealing, where an objective assessment is made of the “real purpose or motive” behind using the copyrighted work, such as for commercial purposes versus charitable purposes; 2. The character of the dealing, examining how the works were dealt with, such as whether multiple copies of works are being widely distributed, or whether a single copy of a work is used for a legitimate purpose; 3. The quantity or amount of the dealing, including the importance of the work allegedly infringed; 4. Alternatives to the dealing, such as whether there is a non-copyrighted equivalent of the work that could have been used instead; 5.  The nature of the work, such as whether the work has been published or is confidential; and 6. The effect of the dealing on the work, such as whether a reproduced work is likely to compete with the market of the original work."

While the above two categories relate more directly to the research exception put forth by, a more nuanced approach has been adopted for research in the SOCAN case, which were distilled by the court in the case at hand:

Research can be more 'challenging' than you'd expect
"Research does not need to be undertaken for the purpose of the user engaging in its own act of authorship or creativity; Research is not limited to creative purposes but can be “piecemeal, informal, exploratory, or confirmatory”, and can be undertaken for no purpose except personal interest; The first step in the fair dealing analysis is a relatively low threshold and does not require the creation of a new work; and The analysis should be undertaken from the perspective of the user or consumer’s purpose". Here the court gives a very wide definition of research, potentially including mere personal interests, even if not 'academic' research, which can include much of the information used to support the purpose. This writer is encouraged by this finding, since a more narrow, limiting definition would deter private researchers (such as this 'researcher') and the potential sharing of that knowledge with others.

The Court quickly, without giving the above much consideration, determined that the DOF's use was indeed fair dealing. This included the fact that, for example, the materials were acquired legally through a licence, the use was for legitimate business reasons internally in the DOF, no commercial advantage was sought and that it was limited to only 6 individuals. Even though the terms and conditions were breached as a result, the court rejected that this would prohibit or prevent fair dealing from applying in those instances. They, however, have to be brought to the attention of the subscriber, which Blacklock's had not done (albeit the terms did exist, but were never formally accepted by the individuals signing up). The defendant was therefore never aware of the terms, and of their own breach as a result.

Judge Barnes determined that fair dealing did apply in this case, and noted that "...Absent consent, subscribers and downstream users are subject to the obligations imposed on them by the Act. But at the same time they enjoy the considerable protection afforded to them under the statutory fair dealing provisions". He further highlighted that, as contested by Blacklock's, that subscriber services like this would suffer very little detriment to their business model, but it does not allow for a carte blanche for users to share the content, which is restricted to genuine fair dealing either way.

The case shows that, provided the uses are legitimate, fair dealing should be afforded a broad and inclusive definition, especially when it comes to research. One can agree with this, since a strict interpretation would act counter-intuitively to the sharing and dissemination of information. The decision also highlights a potential need for the UK to adopt a similar 'fair use' policy, which broadens and protects legitimate uses in a more effective way than restrictive categories.

Source: Barry Sookman

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