Meera Nair

Posts Tagged ‘originality’

remembering Oscar Wilde

In Posts on February 13, 2014 at 7:12 pm

“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. … The fact is, Lady Bracknell, I said I had lost my parents. It would be nearer the truth to say that my parents seem to have lost me.”
- Act I, The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895

To say that it is scintillant – the one bright line and one brilliant epigram and inversion of ordinary speech into something extraordinarily comic, follows after another, is merely to repeat what has been said about the play from the beginning.
- “Oscar Wilde Comedy Revived at the Lyceum”, New York Times, 15 November 1910

Wilde enthusiasts may recall that February 14 marks the anniversary of the debut of The Importance of Being Earnest–A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. The play opened on that date in 1895, at St. James Theatre in London. Leonard Smithers undertook publication of the work a few years later, with a first edition run confined to 1000 copies. (In 2007, the BBC reported that #349 had been found in a charity shop, “appropriately inside a handbag.”)

Copyright enthusiasts have added reason to dwell upon Wilde; his image sparked a pivotal discussion on authorship and originality, the effects of which are felt to this day. In 1882, during a lecture tour of the United States, Wilde sat for a series of photographs with celebrity portrait photographer Napoleon Sarony. When one of the photographs was later incorporated, without permission, into a department store advertisement, Sarony claimed infringement.

That the American courts should have agreed with Sarony seems no matter for surprise today. But at the time, the issue arose as to whether a photograph could be considered the work of an author and thus be eligible as copyrightable material. In The Lingering Effects of Copyright’s Response to Photography (2004), Christine Haight Farley (Associate Professor of Law at Washington College of Law, American University) examines this case against her detailed study of the culture of photography. She writes:

It is not at all surprising that the Supreme Court could appreciate the beauty of the Sarony portrait of Wilde, and with the economic interests at stake at that moment in the history of the photography industry, the result was all but a foregone conclusion. What is, however, remarkable is how the Court could seemingly articulate a standard that could differentiate between high and low art; between art and science (p.389-390).

“Oscar Wilde, No. 18.” Image courtesy of the Museum of Metropolitan Art

Farley explains that the courts were in an awkward predicament. Photography had been lauded as a mechanical process that captures a scene entirely by technology. An absence of human intervention implied an inviolate image of record. Such accuracy carried great merit, adding value to news reporting, documentary publications and evidentiary processes. To argue that a photograph be regarded as a creative work required another interpretation of photography.

The court found such an interpretation by locating creativity in the composition of the scene. According to Sarony’s own brief, he chose the lighting, props, costumes, position, and even the expression of the subject. The Supreme Court uncritically took such a proposition as evidence of authorship, but also took care to limit their decision, “… These findings, we think, show this photograph to be an original work of art (emphasis in original).” The specificity allowed other photography to remain as purely mechanical.

However, the language of the decision reveals an inconsistency within the Court’s reasoning. When refuting the argument that Congress had erred in situating photographs as copyrightable material—that the Constitutional Clause which secures “…for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries…” does not support protection of photographs as writings—the Court identified an author as “he to whom anything owes its origin.” Yet the Court refused to entertain the idea that the composition of the picture lay in the activity at the camera, even though, as Farley writes:

The person operating the camera always exercises choice in producing a photograph. There are creative choices in the precise timing to click the shutter, the angle of the shot, the frame, the focus, the distance from the subject, the centering of the subject, etc.  (p.434).

Farley continues and explains the inconsistency:

[The] Court would have some difficulty relying on this possible act of authorship because Sarony did not actually operate the camera. Sarony was not a photographer in the modern or technical sense. He was not interested in the camera work. Instead, he regularly employed a cameraman, Benjamin Richardson, to work the camera. There is no evidence that Sarony, as directorial as he was, had given any direction to Richardson about these technical choices. There is no indication that Sarony cared about that dimension of choice (p.434-435).

Biographer and historian Roy Morris Jr. indicates that, not only did Sarony not care about technique, he took pains to distance himself from such details. In Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in America (2013), Morris writes:

In action, Sarony was a very hands-off photographer. He took no photos himself, delegating the task to his assistants while he gazed distractedly out the window. Nor did he develop the finished products, bragging that he did not know anything about the developing process (p.35-36).

Indeed, the developing process could also have been a place to locate creativity. As was also the selection of which photographs to register and publish. Farley explores all these avenues in detail and returns to the challenge the Court faced in ensuring photography’s standing as an untampered record of truth. Over the next century, courts would slowly recognize that the activity at the camera and laboratory had a place in the examination of authorship, but Farley’s work illustrates that the rationale employed in Burrow-Giles has surprising staying power.

Returning to The Importance of Being Earnest; readers likely know that the play marked the apex of Wilde’s career and his world would begin to unravel within a few days of the opening night. Soon after, he was charged and convicted of indecency—as per Victorian sensibilities of the day. He received the maximum sentence possible, two years of hard labour in prison, but it would be more accurate to say he received a life-sentence of permanent banishment. In a letter written from prison, he laments:

My tragedy has lasted far too long : its climax is over; its end is mean; and I am quite conscious of the fact that when the end does come I shall return an unwelcome visitant to a world that does not want me (p.22).

Sadly, Wilde’s pronouncement of the world of his lifetime proved to be accurate. Shunned and impoverished, he died with little fanfare in 1900. That his work would be held in such esteem in the century that followed, likely never crossed his mind.

and this one is for teachers …

In Posts on September 28, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Tomorrow we shall see what form of copyright amendment is coming back to Parliament for debate and realization into law. If the inclusion of “education” to fair dealing has survived the campaign to discredit it (see here and here) and becomes a legitimate category in fair dealing, this will help to protect teaching practices. But, if education should not survive, we can still do quite a bit with fair dealing as it exists.

As has been written many times on this blog, fair dealing is not license to copy and distribute at will. It is a nuanced exception within the system of copyright. But the atmosphere of copyright, at this time, is one of confusion.

The movement away from Access Copyright bundled licenses towards more varied approaches for purchasing and distributing learning materials is a positive step. Monopoly practices never produce quality and variety to the benefit of consumers; it doesn’t matter which industry one talks about. Unfortunately, the adjustment is messy. Post-secondary teachers across Canada are unsure of what materials they can copy. A recent article from the Canadian Press sums up the situation:

The resulting wariness means students aren’t getting the same course material they received in the past as guarded professors choose to simply eliminate material from classes they teach rather than risk a lawsuit. … Libraries and copyright officers have been swamped with work this fall, trying to clear the course materials assigned for classrooms.

Sorry as I am to hear that, the larger problem is the degree to which existing teaching practices are scrutinized for copyright infringement. Individual teachers have been implicitly, or explicitly, instructed to remove any copyrighted material from display during lectures. Such a directive has no basis in law. It ignores fair dealing entirely. The purposes of criticism and review (found within existing fair dealing) favour the use of quotations, illustrations, diagrams, flow charts, film clips and software snippets – in short, any copyrighted material – when such inclusion serves the purpose of conveying concepts to students. To fortify this behaviour under fair dealing, attribution is important. But with citation being the backbone of academic practice, it is likely that teachers already take care to identify their source materials to students.

Furthermore, bans on inclusion of copyrighted material in a lecture presentation ignore the status of the teacher as an author in his or her own right and the originality that implies. Preparing a lecture is much more than assembling a sequence of copyrighted material. Teachers bring their own language into the lecture, shaped as it is by their own perspectives. And they exercise the skill and judgment befitting an original creation as described by Chief Justice Beverly Mclaughlin in CCH Canadian.*

A lecture is an original  expression of an idea. Said another way, a lecture is a copyrightable work on its own merits. The fact that this work contains copyrighted elements is not a negation of the copyright status of those elements but neither does it require permission or payment for those elements. This is precisely the behaviour that fair dealing protects; provided one can fall within the existing categories of private study, research, criticism, review and news reporting.

(If this all sounds too esoteric, Canada has an appropriate example of a successful fair dealing defense of an inclusion of copyrighted work into a new work. In this case, a photograph was incorporated into a news story.)

Of course the question will arise, can this work  - known as the lecture – be distributed to students? That is a decision for the copyright holder of the work, namely the author-teacher. I read of Professor Jeremy Richards’ decision to remove some elements before distributing his slides to students – that is his prerogative. I do not have much sympathy for students who require a lecture-to-go. Professor Richards makes a cogent point that students could gain more by taking notes by hand instead of “letting it all wash over [them].” But in any case, the decision to distribute remains at the discretion of the individual who created the whole work, not the copyright holders of the constituent parts.

Good Luck.

* While in this blog I have focused upon the development of the framework of inquiry for fair dealing as brought about through CCH Canadian, the case had another side: a discussion of originality. On that point the Chief Justice wrote:

For a work to be “original” within the meaning of the Copyright Act, it must be more than a mere copy of another work. At the same time, it need not be creative, in the sense of being novel or unique. What is required to attract copyright protection in the expression of an idea is an exercise of skill and judgment. By skill, I mean the use of one’s knowledge, developed aptitude or practised ability in producing the work. By judgment, I mean the use of one’s capacity for discernment or ability to form an opinion or evaluation by comparing different possible options in producing the work. This exercise of skill and judgment will necessarily involve intellectual effort. The exercise of skill and judgment required to produce the work must not be so trivial that it could be characterized as a purely mechanical exercise (para.16).

Our Chief Justice

In Posts on June 1, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Today was an eventful day. Ministers Clement and Moore set the stage for amendment to the Copyright Act with their op/ed in the National Post. The Ministers emphasized the importance of facilitating creative effort in Canada. To that end, the Parliamentary process for amending the Act has begun with the Notice Paper.

But something more significant was happening elsewhere. The Canadian Club of Toronto honoured Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin as the 2010 Canadian of the Year. The award is presented to individuals who have, “improved the lives of others and benefited us as a nation.” The Chief Justice oversaw some landmark moments in Canadian copyright history, the most critical being the CCH Canadian case of 2004. CCH Canadian confirmed the individuality of every instance of fair dealing, provided a framework of exploration for each dealing, and emphasized that fair dealing was an integral part of copyright law. However, the case also addressed originality. At issue was whether the headnotes summarizing court cases were sufficiently original to quality for copyright.

Writing for the Court, the Chief Justice’s explanation of original pierces through to the reality of intellectual endeavor and she is quite explicit as to where such endeavor arises from:

When courts adopt a standard of originality requiring only that something be more than a mere copy or that someone simply show industriousness to ground copyright in a work, they tip the scale in favour of the author’s or creator’s rights, at the loss of society’s interest in maintaining a robust public domain that could help foster future creative innovation. … By way of contrast, when an author must exercise skill and judgment to ground originality in a work, there is a safeguard against the author being overcompensated for his or her work. This helps ensure that there is room for the public domain to flourish as others are able to produce new works by building on the ideas and information contained in the works of others [Para. 23].

The term public domain is also not defined in our Act. Connotation of the phrase ranges from the benign (that which is freely available to the public) to an aura of degradation (to fall into the public domain implies a loss of stature). Common to both interpretations is the belief that material in the public domain is absent copyright, either through expiry or ineligibility. As I have noted the World Intellectual Property Organization defines the public domain as, “… the realm of works which can be exploited by everybody without any authorization.” This includes work lacking copyright protection, however, it also includes currently copyrighted material accessed in accordance with exceptions detailed in our Act. Including fair dealing.


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