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Thursday, 10 November 2016 13:55
The Federal Court has just released a decision in a case that raised issues of fair dealing and copyright abuse. Blacklock’s, an Ottawa-based online news agency, had argued that officials at the Department of Finance breached its copyright in news articles when these articles were circulated internally. The decision is an important confirmation of the ‘right to read’ in Canada and may go some way to dispelling the aftertaste of an earlier flawed decision by the Ontario Small Claims Court in a similar dispute.
Blacklock’s business model is to offer its news content on a subscription-only basis. Its articles are behind a paywall, and only subscribers, equipped with a password, can gain access to them. Individual subscriptions are available for $148 a year, whereas institutional subscription rates range between $11,470 and $15,670.
In this case, a reporter from Blacklock’s had interviewed the President of the Canadian Sugar Institute, Sandra Marsden, for a story relating to sugar tariff changes. The same reporter had sought comments from Department of Finance officials and ultimately had an exchange of email correspondence with the Department’s media relations officer. In what appears to be Blacklock’s practice, teasers about the story were sent out to Marsden by email and by Twitter. Based on the teasers Marsden became concerned about the accuracy of the article. She paid for an individual subscription in order to access it. After reading the article her concerns grew and she cut and pasted the article into an email, to a Department official. The same reporter wrote a follow up piece which Marsden also found problematic; she forward this piece to the Department of Finance as well. The two articles were circulated between a total of 6 Finance employees who discussed amongst themselves whether any follow-up with Blacklock’s was required. In the end it was decided that the matter should be dropped.
Justice Barnes found that there was no disputing that the Finance officials had used Blacklock’s copyright-protected material without paying for it or seeking Blacklock’s consent. The key issue was whether the use fell within the fair dealing exception for research or private study in s. 29 of the Copyright Act. After reviewing the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark fair dealing decision in CCH Canadian v. Law Society of Upper Canada and its more recent decision in SOCAN v. Bell Canada, he concluded that the use constituted fair dealing. He noted that, according to the case law, “research” does not have to lead to the creation of a new work of authorship; it can be ““piecemeal, informal, exploratory, or confirmatory”, and can be undertaken for no purpose except personal interest.” (at para 31)
Justice Barnes found that the Finance officials “had legitimate concerns about the fairness and accuracy” of the reporting in the article. Her further found the internal circulation of the piece was justified on the basis that “[e]veryone involved had a legitimate need to be aware in the event that further action was deemed necessary”. (at para 35) He identified a number of considerations that influenced his conclusion that the officials’ dealing with the material was fair. He noted that the articles had not been obtained by illegal means such as hacking the website; rather, they had been provided by a subscriber to the site who had legally accessed them and had forwarded them for “a legitimate business reason”. (at para 36) The articles had been sent to the Finance officials and not solicited by them; they received limited circulation; and they were not republished or used for any commercial purpose. The court also found that the two articles were a tiny fraction of the content available from the Blacklock’s site. Further, Justice Barnes opined that “a finding of copyright infringement against a news source for the simple act of reading the resulting copy is likely to have a chilling effect on the ability of the press to gather information.” (at para 36). Justice Barnes also stated that “copyright should not be a device that serves to protect the press from accountability for its errors and omissions.” (at para 36).
Blacklock’s had argued that its terms and conditions for access to its paywalled content had been breached when the material was forwarded to Finance officials, and that this breach should serve to negate a finding of fair dealing. Justice Barnes appeared sympathetic to this argument on its face, stating that it was a “relevant consideration” (though he did not state that it would necessarily be determinative). However, he cautioned that for this factor to be taken into account, the copyright owner would have to demonstrate that the user was aware of the terms and conditions and that the terms and conditions actually barred the conduct at issue. In this case, he found that none of the parties involved had either read or even been aware of Blacklock’s terms and conditions which were not readily part of the process for signing up for an individual subscription. He also found that the terms and conditions were not clear, stating: “On the one hand they seemingly prohibit distribution by subscribers but, on the other, they permit it for personal, or non-commercial uses.” (at para 42).
Blacklock’s also objected that a finding of fair dealing would undermine its business model – selling online news through a subscriber-only paywall. Justice Barnes was not particularly sympathetic, noting that “All subscription-based news agencies suffer from work-product leakage.” (at para 45) Further, he stated that “whatever business model Blacklock’s employs it is always subject to the fair dealing rights of third parties.” (at para 45) At the same time, he noted that by so stating, he was not endorsing “blameworthy conduct in the form of unlawful technological breaches of a paywall, misuse of passwords or the widespread exploitation of copyright material to obtain a commercial or business advantage.” (at para 45)
As I noted in an earlier comment on this case, the defendants had argued that Blacklock’s was engaged in copyright misuse and was acting as a kind of “copyright troll”. In fact, there are 9 other suits brought by Blacklock’s against the federal government on similar sets of facts. Noting that “there are certainly some troubling aspects to Blacklock’s business practices”, Justice Barnes nevertheless found it unnecessary to rule on the copyright abuse and trolling arguments in light of his findings on fair dealing. The other cases, which were stayed pending the resolution of this first dispute, may now end up being settled out of court.
In the course of his decision, Justice Barnes referred to what occurred in this case as “no more than the simple act of reading by persons with an immediate interest in the material.” (at para 36) This right to read is fundamentally important in a society that values knowledge and the freedom of expression. The decision makes it clear that business models for content distribution cannot run roughshod over certain fundamental users rights.
Published in Copyright Law
Monday, 29 August 2016 09:43
A pair of interesting copyright lawsuits are making their way through the federal court and are worth watching for the novel issues they raise and the potential they have for shaping copyright law in Canada.
One of these is actually a series of lawsuits brought by the news service Blacklock’s Reporter against a total of 7 federal government departments and agencies and 3 Crown corporations and agencies. Blacklock’s provides articles on a subscription basis only; it accuses the various defendants of having accessed copies of its articles without having subscribed to the service and in breach of their copyrights. The defendants argue that Blacklock’s “employs a pattern of writing misleading or inaccurate articles about an organization with the expectation that these articles would be accessed and shared internally.” They then allege that Blacklock’s files access to information requests to uncover details of such access and distribution in order to issue claims for damages for copyright infringement. Essentially, they contend that Blacklock’s is engaged in copyright trolling. (Note that I wrote about an earlier law suit brought in Ontario small claims court by Blacklock’s against the Canadian Vintner’s Association here.)
The Federal Court has just upheld a prothonotary’s decision to streamline this litigation by issuing a stay of proceedings in 9 of the 10 lawsuits until certain legal issues have been aired and decided in the 10th. The decision is based on the view that since each of the cases raises similar issues, it would be more just and a more efficient use of resources to proceed in this way.
The defendants do not appear to deny having accessed the articles in question. Instead, they argue that the uses made of the articles in question were fair dealing (based on use of the material for “internal government reporting purposes”). They also raise the defense of copyright misuse. Copyright misuse relies on an argument that the copyright owner, through its conduct, is attempting to secure for themselves a broader right than it is entitled to by law. The defence now has a considerable track record in the United States, but remains novel in Canada. Clearly this litigation raises interesting arguments that make it worth following. The five-day trial for the case that is to go forward has been scheduled for September 2016.
A second case involves what is called a “reverse class action law suit” brought by Voltage Pictures against an as-yet unidentified group of defendants for copyright violation related to the downloading of films in which Voltage holds copyright. Typically a class action law suit is brought by a large group of plaintiffs who have all been harmed by the same wrong allegedly committed by a single defendant. The class action law suit allows plaintiffs to pool their efforts and it makes for a more efficient use of judicial resources. Class action law suits can also be used to hold defendants to account in cases where large numbers of people are negatively affected, but no single individual has suffered enough economic harm to make it worthwhile taking their case to court. In these ways, class action law suits improve access to justice. The reverse class-action law suit is quite another animal. In a reverse class-action law suit, there is a single plaintiff who essentially is arguing that it has been harmed by the actions of multiple defendants. Rather than sue each defendant individually, they proceed against a single defendant who is considered representative of the much larger class.
Voltage has recently succeeded in having a court compel Rogers Communications Inc. to reveal the name and address of a subscriber whose account has been linked by Voltage to allegedly illegal downloading activity. This will be the representative defendant in a law suit that may put the activities of thousands of other as yet unnamed ISP subscribers at issue. Of course, a court has yet to certify the reverse class action law suit.
Voltage’s strategy comes as both the courts and Parliament have put limits on the extent to which ordinary consumers can be targeted in copyright infringement lawsuits for non-commercial uses of works. By significantly limiting the damages available in such instances, Parliament made it deliberately difficult for copyright holders to launch law suits seeking massive amounts of damages against ordinary individuals – a practice that has become notorious in the United States. The “notice and notice” provisions of the Copyright Act also protect against sweeping accusations of copyright infringement that might otherwise limit freedom of expression by compelling the take down of content that might fall within the fair dealing exceptions to copyright infringement. Canadian courts have also been quite protective of individual privacy, requiring that a plaintiff establish a bona fide claim of copyright infringement before a court will issue an order compelling a service provider to produce customer name and address information that is linked to the allegedly infringing activity. The reverse class action lawsuit offers plaintiffs a work-around to some of these protective measures and could open the door to the large-scale pursuit of those who download unauthorized content over the internet. Both copyright owners and users’ rights advocates will be watching this case with interest.
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