Meera Nair

domestic dispute and international obligation

In Posts on December 7, 2011 at 7:14 pm

Between December 6 & 7, five copyright cases were argued at the Supreme Court of Canada. Directly relevant to fair dealing are two questions:  (1) Are music previews fair dealing by consumers? (SOCAN et al v. Bell Canada et al)  (2) Is the copying of short excerpts of material, as determined by a teacher, fair dealing by students? (Province of Alberta et al v. Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency operating as Access Copyright)

In this latter question, the educational community pointed out the inconsistency of current case law:

This case is not about a commercial use of copyright works. Despite this, copying by teachers for students in Canadian elementary and secondary schools has been held to be unfair, while copying for lawyers and the streaming of music previews to consumers in an obvious commercial context has been held to be fair. … [It] is the purpose of the consumer of the copy that should be used to assess the notion of “fairness”, not the purpose of the maker of the copy. The consumer is the student in the educational environment; the online music purchaser in the electronic commerce environment; and the lawyer, law student or clerk in the legal environment. The makers of copies are, correspondingly, the teacher, the online music service, and the librarian.  (See para 10 here. )

These cases will test the famed CCH Canadian Supreme Court directives that “the fair dealing exception is a user’s right … it must not be interpreted restrictively” and “research should be given a large and liberal interpretation.” The delineation of who qualifies as a “user” and what constitutes “research” should prove interesting.

Judging by Michael Geist’s post of Day One, and tweets of Day Two, the outcome for fair dealing looks promising in the first case and less so in the second.  (More on that another day.)

What is striking about these cases is that those who seek to narrow the application of fair dealing continue to invoke the disingenuous argument that Canada’s approach to fair dealing could be in violation of international obligations, namely the three-step test of the Berne Convention. (In addition to the submissions of the principal parties as provided above, the factums of the interveners can be found here.) But although the High Court did not appear to be swayed by those arguments, such claims impede potential fair dealing among non-lawyers. Fair dealing, and applying the CCH Canadian framework, requires clarity, comprehension and some courage of conviction. Even to imply that FD+CCH is in violation of international law is enough to set back any productive effort to engage with fair dealing.

Noted scholars P. Bernt Hugenholtz and Ruth Okediji have no illusions that the focus of the three-step test is directed towards copyright protection; yet they still offer this encouragement: “the three-step test does afford [member] states significant flexibilities, and leaves them sufficient room to enter into an instrument on [limitations and exceptions] with meaningful substantive content (p.482)”.

Turning to the Berne Convention itself, the three-step test is stated in Article 9(2):

It shall be a matter for legislation in the countries of the Union to permit the reproduction of such works in certain special cases, provided that such reproduction does not conflict with a normal exploitation of the work and does not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author.

Although the first condition of “certain special cases” is often held to discourage an individual instance of copying, one has to bear in mind that the exception as a whole must first be considered. To that end, Canada is in good stead. Fair dealing is a very precise entity – it is decreed by law to apply only to the specific purposes of research, private study, criticism, review and news reporting. These purposes have long been accepted as suitable reasons for exception to copyright’s mandate.

The second condition, that the exception should “not conflict with normal exploitation of a work”, raises the question of: what is normal exploitation? For many in the rights holders’ community, all uses should be normal exploitation, thereby eliminating exceptions in totality. But as leading attorney Fred von Lohmann reminds us: “Copyright law strives to strike a balance between creating adequate (not maximal) incentives for the creation and distribution of expressive works, while also ensuring widespread public access to and enjoyment of such works (p.10, emphasis in original).”

If, as rights holders are prone to do, analysis is confined to matters of remuneration, uses that do not contribute a substantive benefit to the rights holder are particularly well suited for protection under this condition. (In terms of the current case between Access Copyright and the educational community, the scope of the disputed copying averages to less than 5 pages per student.*)

The last condition, to “not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author” provides considerable leeway. (1) The prohibition, “not unreasonably prejudice”, indicates that there may well be reasonable grounds to prejudice rights holders’ interests. Freedom of expression comes to mind; it would likely seek shelter under fair dealing through criticism and review. (2) The language of “legitimate interests of authors” serves as a visible reminder that legitimate operation of copyright does not extend to complete control. As the Supreme Court told us in 2004, fair dealing is always available.


P. Bernt Hugenholtz and Ruth L. Okediji. 2009. “The Contours of an International Instrument on Limitations and Exceptions” in The Development Agenda, ed. Neil Natanel, Oxford University Press. p.473-497.

Fred von Lohmann. 2008. “Fair Use As Innovation Policy,” Berkeley Technology Law Journal. Vol. 23 (1).

* In the educational copying dispute, the total copying is described as 246 million pages. Only 16.8 million pages are in dispute. These are short extracts copied to supplement textbook content. Spread across 3.8 million full-time students, this yields an average of 4.5 pages per student). See paras 6-9 of the submission of Province of Alberta et al.

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