Teresa Scassa - Blog

The rise of big data analytics, combined with a movement at all levels of government in Canada towards open data and the proactive disclosure of government information have created a context in which privacy interests are increasingly likely to conflict with the goals of transparency and accountability. In some cases these conflicts may be small and easily reconciled, but in other cases they may be more substantial. In addition, some means of reconciling the conflict must be found; where privacy and transparency conflict, for example, which value should prevail and under what conditions?

Conflicts between transparency and privacy have been seen recently in, for example, concerns expressed over the amount of personal information that might be found in court and tribunal decisions that are published online. Sunshine lists – lists of salaries of public employees that are over a certain amount – also raise issues. Provinces that publish such lists have tended to do so using file formats that do not lend themselves to easy digital manipulation. But of course these modest technological barriers are routinely overcome, and individual name and salary information is absorbed into the big data universe for purposes quite distinct from meeting a government’s transparency objectives. Open municipal data files may include information about specific individuals: for example, a database of all home renovation permit applications would have privacy implications for those individuals who applied for such permits. Even with names were redacted, it is easy enough to identify the owners of any homes for which renovation permits were obtained. In some cases, the level of connection may be less direct. For example, a public restaurant inspection record that cited kitchen staff at a small local restaurant for failure to wash their hands on a specific inspection date might indirectly reveal the identity of the persons who did not wash their hands, particularly if the staff of the restaurant is quite small. And, of course, in the big data context, even anonymized data, or data that is not personal information on its face, can be matched with other available data to identify specific individuals.

The point is not that the disclosure of such information must be avoided at all costs – rather, the issue is how to determine where to draw the line between privacy and transparency, and what steps might be taken to protect privacy while still ensuring transparency. No new legislative framework has been created to specifically guide the move towards open government in Canada, notwithstanding the fact that government data is fuel for the engines of big data.

In a paper that has just been published by the Alberta Law Review, my co-author Amy Conroy and I explore these issues, using a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision as a departure point for our analysis. Although the Court’s decision in Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services v Information and Privacy Commissioner (Ontario) (Ministry of Community Safety) does not specifically address either open data or proactive disclosure, the case nevertheless offers important insights into the gaps in both legislation and case law in this area.

In our paper we consider the challenges inherent in the release of government data and information either through pro-active disclosure or as open data. A key factor in striking the balance between transparency and privacy is the definition of personal information – information that is not personal information has no privacy implications. Another factor is, of course, the meaning given to the concept of transparency. Our paper considers how courts and adjudicators understand transparency in the face of competing claims to privacy. We challenge the simple equation of the release of information with transparency and argue that the coincidence of open government with big data requires new approaches that are informed by the developing relationship between privacy and transparency.

“Promoting Transparency While Protecting Privacy in Open Government in Canada” by Amy Conroy and Teresa Scassa is published in (2015) 53:1 Alberta Law Review 175-206. A pre-print version is available here.

Published in Privacy

It is not every day that courts are asked to interpret Creative Commons licenses, which is what makes the recent U.S. decision in Drauglis v. Kappa Map Group, LLC of particular interest.

Creative Commons offers a suite of licenses that can be used by those seeking to license their copyright-protected works under terms that facilitate different levels of sharing and use. Some licenses are virtually without restriction; others restrict uses of the work to non-commercial uses; contain requirements to give attribution to the author of the work; or require that any derivative works made using the licensed work by made available under similar license terms (Share-Alike). The licenses are available in multiple languages and have been adapted to the laws of a variety of different countries. They are even used for open government licensing of works in countries like Australia and New Zealand.

In this case, the plaintiff Art Drauglis was a photographer who had posted a photograph on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license (CC BY-SA 2.0). The defendant was a company that published maps and map-related products. It downloaded a copy of the plaintiff’s photograph from Flickr, and used it on the cover of an atlas it published titled “Montgomery co., Maryland Street Atlas”. The atlas was sold commercially, and the defendant claimed copyright in it. The copyright notice for the atlas appeared its first page, along with its table of contents. On the rear cover of the atlas, the title of the plaintiff’s photograph was provided as well as the information about the name of the photographer and the fact that it was used under a CC-BY-SA-2.0 license.

The plaintiff’s first claim – that the defendant had breached his copyright in the photograph – was quickly rejected by the Court. The District Court (District of Columbia) found that the defendant had used the image under license. Further, the license specifically permitted commercial uses of the image. Thus the plaintiff was limited to arguing that the defendant’s use of the photograph was not in compliance with the terms of the license. There were 3 main arguments regarding non-compliance. These were that: 1) the Share-Alike condition of the license was breached by the defendant’s commercial sale of the atlas; 2) the defendant did not include a proper Uniform Resource Identifier for the CC license as required by the license terms; and 3) the defendant did not provide the proper attribution for the photograph as required by the license.

The CC BY-SA 2.0 license requires that derivative works made using the licensed works also be made available under the same or comparable license terms. The plaintiff therefore argued that the defendant breached this term by publishing the atlas commercially and not under an equivalent license. The court disagreed. It found that the CC license contemplated two categories of re-use of the licensed work – in a “collective work” (defined in the license as a “periodical issue, anthology or encyclopedia, in which the Work in its entirety in unmodified form” is included with other contributions into a collective whole), or as a “derivative work” (defined in the license as a “work based upon the Work. . . in which the Work may be recast, transformed, or adapted”.) It is only derivative works that must be licensed under comparable license terms. The court found that the use of the photograph in this case was as part of a collective work. That collective work was the atlas, consisting of a series of separate works (maps) compiled together with other elements, including the plaintiff’s photograph, in a book. The court rejected arguments that the photograph had been cropped, and was thus “recast, transformed or adapted” rather than incorporated “in its entirety in unmodified form”. It was not persuaded that any cropping had taken place; if it had it was so minor in nature that it was inconsequential.

The CC BY-SA 2.0 license also requires that the licensee “must include a copy of, or the Uniform Resource Identifier for, this License with every copy . . . of the Work”. The plaintiff argued that this clause had been violated by the defendant because it only referred to the license as a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license and did not provide a URL for the license. The court distinguished between a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) and a URL, noting that ‘URI’ is a term with a broader meaning than URL. While providing a URL might meet this requirement, providing the abbreviated name and version of the license met the requirement for a URI. The court noted that anyone searching the internet for “CC BY-SA 2.0” would easily arrive at the proper license.

The plaintiff also argued that the defendant did not properly attribute authorship of the photograph to the plaintiff in accordance with the terms of the license. The license required that any credit given to the author of a work in a derivative or collective work must, at a minimum, “appear where any other comparable authorship credit appears and in a manner at least as prominent as such other comparable authorship credit.” (Section 4(c)). Because the copyright information for the atlas as a whole appeared on the inside front page and the credit for the cover photo appeared on the back of the atlas, the plaintiff argued that this condition was not met. However, the court found that copyright information was provided for each map on each page of the atlas, and that this type of credit was comparable to that provided for the cover photograph. The court found that “the Photograph is more akin to each of the individual maps contained with the Atlas than to the Atlas itself; the maps are discrete, stand-alone pictorial or graphic works, whereas the Atlas is a compilation of many elements, arranged in a specific and proprietary fashion, and constituting a separate and original work.” (at p. 18) As a result, the attribution provided for the cover photo was comparable to that provided for other works in the collective work.

This would appear to be a case where the plaintiff’s expectations as to what the CC license he used for his work would achieve for him were not met. It is perhaps a cautionary tale for those who use template licenses – the simplicity and user-friendliness of the human readable version of the license does not mean that the detail in the legal code should be ignored – particularly where the licensor seeks to place specific limits on how the work might be used.

Published in Copyright Law

A recent (though not yet in force) amendment to Canada’s Trade-marks Act will permit an unprecedented purging of trademark records in Canada. This destruction of records should be understood within the disturbing context described in a recent Maclean’s article by Anne Kingston, titled “Vanishing Canada: Why We’re All Losers in Canada’s War on Data”.

The new section 29.1 is aptly titled “Destruction of Records”. It provides that, notwithstanding the Registrar’s duty to maintain trademark data and documentation for public view, the Registrar may still destroy a broad range of documents. These can include applications for trademarks that are refused or abandoned, documents relating to trademarks that have been expunged, documents relating to any request for public notice to be given of an official mark that has been abandoned, refused or invalidated, and documents relating to objections to geographical indications that are removed from the list of geographical indications. All of these documents may be destroyed 6 years after the final action on the file.

Since 1997, the Registrar has been maintaining an electronic register of trademarks. This register is publicly accessible and searchable. However, it does not provide electronic access to the underlying documentation relating to the registrations. This information has nonetheless been available for public consultation, and is also available through access to information requests. While it is now possible to file trademark applications online, thus replacing paper with digital documents, this option has not always been available and there is still a great deal of paper floating about. All this paper obviously takes up a significant amount of space. How should the problem be addressed? One option is to begin the process of digitization; paper records can be destroyed once digital copies are made. Digital copies would also allow for a vastly improved level of access. Another option is to just chuck it all out. It is this latter option, cheap and easy, that will be implemented by the new section 29.1 of the Trade-marks Act.

Of what use are the records at issue? Trademark lawyers have argued that information about past trademark applications – including those refused by the Registrar – is often used in trademark opposition proceedings and in litigation. The International Trademark Association (INTA) opposed section 29.1 in a written submission to the Parliamentary Committee that studied the Bill that introduced this provision. INTA stated that “the downside risk of losing public access to these documents outweighs the hardships to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office associated with maintaining those records.” INTA also noted that the Canadian approach was out of line with that in the United States and in Europe. INTA argued that the destruction of paper records should only take place after electronic copies have been made. The United States, for example, has created a searchable online resource to provide access to all of its records relating to all trademark applications, registered trademarks, Madrid Protocol applications and international registrations.

In addition to the relevance of this information to trademark practitioners, the soon to be destroyed information has research value as well. Canadian trademark law is a relatively under-researched area of Canadian intellectual property law. It would be a great shame if large volumes of data disappear just as research in this area begins to mature and expand.

What might a researcher distill from these records? Here’s one example. Official marks have long been criticized for giving “public authorities” an almost unlimited power to carve out trademark space for themselves without any of the usual checks and balances put in place to manage trademark monopolies in the public interest. Many official marks for which public notice has been given by the Registrar have later been invalidated by the courts either on the basis that the “public authority” seeking public notice was not really a public authority or on the basis that they had not actually adopted or used the mark in question. Once s. 29.1 takes effect, the paper records relating to official marks that have been invalidated will disappear after 6 years. The Registrar has become more rigorous in her examination of requests for official marks (within the limits of a law totally lacking in rigour in this respect). Because there is no application process for official marks, all that appears in the register of trademark is the actual public notice in successful cases. Records relating to failed requests for public notice will soon be subject to destruction after 6 years. This means that this information will disappear entirely and without a trace. What public authorities have sought official marks that have been refused? What was the basis for the refusal to give public notice? What entities claiming to be public authorities have attempted to get trademark protection through this avenue? What might the answers to these questions tell us about a regime that is badly in need of reform? The answers to these questions will become unknowable once s. 29.1 takes effect and the wholesale destruction of records begins.

Digitization of records is expensive, time-consuming and labour intensive. But if paper records are destroyed before digitization takes place there is simply no way to recreate the information. It is lost forever. I have given only a few examples of the potential relevance of the information that is set to be destroyed once s. 29.1 comes into force. Let’s hope it never does. The concepts of open government and open data are only meaningful if there is something left to see once the doors are opened.

Published in Trademarks
Tuesday, 26 May 2015 07:05

Open Data Current Events

It’s a busy week for Open Government and Open Data in Ottawa. All week long conferences and workshops are taking place in the capital around the theme of open government. Yesterday’s Open Data Summit, hosted by organized by Open North, drew a good-sized audience of developers, public servants and academics from Canada and elsewhere. Later this week, the 3rd international Open Data Conference will unfold. There is also an open data Unconference on May 26.

The meetings are creating a buzz around open data – a practice that is spreading through all three levels of government in Canada. The Canadian government and provincial leaders such as Alberta and British Columbia have open data portals where government data sets are made available in machine readable formats for reuse by anyone under an open licence containing very few restrictions. Many municipalities, including Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto have also embraced open data. The City of Edmonton, a leader in this area was given an open data award at the Open Data Summit.

Other recent developments of note relating to open data include the call for comments by the Ontario Government on its new plan for Open Data by Default. The draft document is made available to the public on Google docs. Anyone can visit and leave their comments or can view the many comments of those who have already visited the document. The document also contains, in an appendix, the open licence which the Ontario government will use in relation to its data. The licence is based upon the open government licence developed by the federal government.

Also of note is the rather low-profile launch by the federal government of the ODX. The creation of this open data incubator organization is part of the government’s Action Plan on Open Data, and funding to launch this institute was announced last week.

Meanwhile, the Geothink research team of which I am a part (funded by a Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) continues its work on open-data related research. Ongoing projects relate to open data standards, liability issues, privacy, intellectual property, civic participation, and much, much more. Several Geothinkers are attending and participating in this week’s Ottawa events.

In a paper that I have just published in the Fordham Urban Law Journal, I consider the evolution of intellectual property (IP) claims in relation to three specific categories of data that have been of interest to transit users: route maps, static transit data, and real-time GPS data. This data is generated by municipal transit authorities in the course of their operations. Increasingly, it has been sought as open data by developers keen to make use of this data in a very broad range of apps. It is also of interest to corporations that seek to add value to their products and services.

Route maps are a very basic form of transit data – they represent, in graphic form, the general location and ordering of transit stops within a given transit system. Static transit data is essentially schedule or timetable data. It is referred to as “static” because it is not subject to rapid change, although timetable data does change seasonally, as well as in response to growth or development in a given transit system. Real-time transit data is generated and communicated in real time. Typically it is gathered from GPS units that are installed on transit vehicles.

These three categories of data have all been the focus of IP disputes involving different actors and differing motivations. Because the categories of data also reflect an evolution of the types of available data, the technologies for accessing and using that data, and the growing complexity and value of the data, they offer an interesting window into the evolution of IP claims in this area. More specifically, they allow IP law to be considered not so much as the focus of inquiry (i.e. whether there is copyright in transit data), but rather in relation to its role within an emerging and evolving community of practice shaped by changing technology.

The claim to IP rights in something (a bus timetable, for example) is based upon an understanding that such rights may exist and are supported by statute and case law. However, in my research I was interested not just in law in this strict sense (i.e: can one have copyright in a bus timetable), but rather in law as it was experienced. What I found was that actual law was surprisingly irrelevant to many of the claims being asserted in the transit data context. Being in a position to make a claim to IP rights was in many ways more important than actually having a good claim.

Disputes over transit data have evolved along with the data. Early claims of copyright infringement were levelled by transit authorities against developers who adapted transit maps for viewing on the iPod. Similarly, copyright infringement claims were brought against app developers who used static transit data to develop timetable apps for emerging smartphone technology. Compounding the impact of these claims, notice and takedown provisions in U.S. copyright law gave putative rights holders a tool to remove apps from circulation based on copyright claims, regardless of their merits. Similar conflicts arose in relation to real-time GPS data. With real-time GPS data, another level was added – so-called patent trolls in Canada and the US pursued municipalities and app developers alike for the use of allegedly patented code useful in the communication of real-time GPS data.

In spite of a proliferation of IP claims, the municipal transit data context is one in which there is virtually no litigation. Instead, there are simply claims to rights invoked in cease and desist letters, as well as responses to those letters and public reaction to those claims. In the rare instances of formalized legal proceedings, disputes typically settle before going to court. As well, because disputes over municipal transit data tend to focus on claims to rights in data or data-based products, the claims are fundamentally both weak and contingent. They are weak because there can be no copyright in facts, and because the copyright in compilations of facts is notoriously “thin”. They are contingent because the only way to resolve the issue of whether any given compilation of facts is protected by copyright is to litigate the matter. In a context where the potential defendants cannot afford, or have no incentive, to litigate, it is the claim that matters far more than its merits.

Claims to intellectual property rights also underlie the contracts and licenses that are used to manage interactions in this area as well. They are used to arrive at ‘consensual’ solutions regarding the use of IP. In this sense, the licenses acknowledge and reinforce rights claims, creating, perhaps, a communal acquiescence to the claims. An open data licence involves a government granting a licence to use its data without need for permission or compensation; such a licence is premised upon the existence of IP rights. A party who agrees to such a licence before using the data tacitly accepts this IP claim.

In addition to the points of conflict discussed above, copyright law has been fundamental to the many open licences developed in conjunction with open transit data, and as such it has shaped other consensual relationships between actors in this field. As open data licences began to proliferate, issues around legal interoperability came to the fore, along with issues regarding the use of proprietary, as opposed to open, standards for transit data. These issues are not ones which attract litigation; for the most part they are matters of trial and error, negotiation and compromise. They reflect ongoing interaction and relationships between transit authorities, developers, private sector corporations and civil society groups. In my paper, I look at how community consensuses about law can emerge even in the absence of a specific legal text or case law. I examine how law is used by different actors to achieve certain ends, and what those ends are.

In the case of municipal transit data, the emerging and evolving open data movement began to have an impact on government practices with arguments around greater efficiency, lower cost, better citizen engagement, and so on. It drew upon the experience and rhetoric of the open source movement, as well as on the norms and practices of the software development community. These developments eventually led, in some key cases, to a shift in how (still very weak) IP rights were managed by municipalities and transit authorities. This in turn engaged new legal issues around open licenses. As open transit data evolved, so too did the number and nature of the actors with an interest in this area. IP rights become entangled not just in the transit data itself, but also in the technologies used to generate the data. IP became a matter of contention or consideration between a range of actors, both private and public sector.

My full paper, complete with references can be found here.

Published in Copyright Law
Tuesday, 05 November 2013 16:05

Call to Action on Open Data

The Global Open Data Initiative, a civil-society led organization, is seeking feedback on its Citizen Call to Action on Open Data. Comments must be provided by November 8, 2013.

The Citizen Call to Action is part of a drive to engage citizens in the goals of the open data movement, notably in promoting transparent and accountable government through free access to a broad range of government data in reusable formats.

The Declaration around which the Call to Action is based calls for governments to take a number of steps considered crucial to fostering open data. The first is to make government data open by default. In other words, unless there is some reason to limit access to data, it should be made freely available, in reusable formats. The Declaration also calls on governments to engage users of data in the process of designing and implementing open data. Engagement can include involving users in identifying priority data sets and in designing initiatives meant to promote open data.

Implicit in the notion of open data is that the data be free: free of restrictions on reuse, free from restrictive or proprietary formats and free from cost. This is a broad concept of “free” data, and it is one that will require the development of common standards and formats within government, as well as co-operation and collaboration between different levels of government to ensure that data is as useful as possible once it is made available. The Declaration encourages governments to invest in capacity building both within government to ensure their own capability to generate and make available high quality, reusable data, but also within user communities. The Declaration also calls for steps to be taken to improve the quality of government data.

Finally the Declaration calls for accountability to be the core value of Open Data, requiring governments to release data that is crucial to keeping government accountable rather than to focus on data sets which are considered nonthreatening to vested political interests. The Declaration also calls for legal and political reforms to further the goals of transparency in government.

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Canadian Trademark Law

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