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A recent decision of the Federal Court has caused a small stir over language that, taken at face value, would have a dramatic impact on trademark law in Canada. In Homeaway.com, Inc. v. Hrdlicka, Justice Hughes considered an application to have the respondents registered trademark VRBO, for vacation real estate listing services, expunged from the register. The applicant was the owner of the U.S. based website VRBO.com, which offers vacation real estate listings on a…

Monday, 07 January 2013 10:51

Copyright in Public Documents

Written by Teresa Scassa

Who owns copyright in documents created by private individuals for public purposes? This issue has been raised in at least two recent motions for certification of class action law suits for copyright infringement in the Ontario Superior Court.

The first of these, Waldman v. Thomson Reuters Corporation, resulted in the certification of a class action in February 2012. The plaintiff represents lawyers in private practice who object to the incorporation of court documents authored by lawyers into the defendant’s commercial databases without consent or compensation. The documents at issue include pleadings, notices of motions, affidavits and factums. All of these documents must be filed in court, and become part of a public record during the course of litigation. These court documents are already available to the public through different channels – for example, the public can obtain copies of documents in court records by visiting a court office and by paying the prescribed fees. Some documents are also now made available online by courts. The plaintiff in the class action suit in Waldman objected to the inclusion of these same documents in a commercial, for-profit service.

More recently, the Ontario Supreme Court has refused to certify a class action lawsuit brought by a land surveyor who objected to the inclusion of land survey documents in Ontario’s online land registry system Teranet. Copies of documents in Teranet are available to the public for a fee. The plaintiff in Keatley Surveying Ltd. v. Teranet Inc. argued that the survey documents were works in which copyright subsisted and their inclusion in the database without licence or compensation was a violation of those copyrights.

Both cases raise interesting issues regarding privately authored documents that are drafted as part of public processes, and that must necessarily be accessible to the public as a matter of public policy. Indeed, David Vaver has argued, in an article about the specific issue of copyright in legal documents, that in addition to the usual fair dealing exceptions in the Copyright Act, there may also be arguments around custom and public policy that permit copying without need for permission. Of course, this does not address the issue of whether a private company can commercialize access to the public documents without licence or compensation, and it will be interesting to see the outcome of the Waldman case.

The Keatley motion to certify was rejected by the court because it did not meet any of the criteria for certification of a class action. Among other things, the court was not convinced that there was an identifiable class of similarly affected individuals for the plaintiff to represent. This was because many prominent surveyors and land survey companies were involved in the design and creation of Teranet, and it was not clear whether any other surveyors in Ontario shared the plaintiff’s views on the copyright issues. Further, the court noted that membership in the proposed class would depend on the outcome of the litigation – the proposed class defined itsmembers as those who were holders of copyright in land survey documents, and one of the issues to be determined was whether land surveyors actually had copyright in their documents. If they did not, there could be no member of the class.

Nevertheless, there were some interesting issues raised in the lawsuit, and it is unfortunate that their consideration must be left to another day. For example, Teranet argued that if there is copyright in the land surveys, it lies with the provincial Crown. Crown copyright arises under s. 12 of the Copyright Act where a work is “prepared or published by or under the direction or control of Her Majesty or any government department”. Teranet argued that the provincial laws and regulations governing the creation and use of plans of survey amounted to direction or control over the creation of the works by the Crown. In the words of the court, “Legislation dictates the manner in which the survey is conducted, the content of the plan of survey, the form of the plan, and even details of the plan’s physical appearance, such as the type of paper used, the shape of the paper and the type of ink used.” (at para 102). If this type of direction or control can be said to give rise to Crown copyright, it might have interesting implications for a very broad range of other documents and data prepared under strict rules, standards or guidance – including, perhaps, some legal documents prepared for and submitted to courts.

Teranet also argued that Ontario’s Land Titles Act and the Registry Act both provide that deposited and registered plans are the “property of the Crown” and that this supports a finding of Crown copyright in the documents.. Of course, this same wording could easily be interpreted to refer to property rights in the physical document and not the underlying intangible intellectual property rights. Since copyright is a matter of federal jurisdiction and since s. 12 of the Copyright Act specifically addresses the circumstances in which Crown copyright arises, an interpretation of provincial legislation that creates a new basis for Crown copyright (the deposit and registration of documents) might take the legislation beyond the scope of provincial competence. Nevertheless, the court was of the view that “a compelling case can be made that copyright belongs to the Crown, based on s. 12 of the Copyright Act and the statutory regime that governs plans of survey”( at para 113), although it stopped short of actually drawing this conclusion. This is a complex and interesting question, and one with implications in many other contexts.

While Waldman will not answer these specific questions, it may provide some important insights on issues of fair dealing, custom and public policy (certainly, in the case of land surveys there has been a longstanding practice of providing copies to members of the public for a fee – even prior to the development of Teranet). These arguments, which provide a justification for the exercise by others of the exclusive rights of authors, seem far preferable to arguments that the state has expropriated these same rights through the creation of a registry system.


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