Meera Nair

Blacklock’s Reporter, the stories within the story

In Posts on November 15, 2016 at 8:46 pm

On 10 November 2016, Justice Barnes of the Federal Court released his decision for Blacklock’s Reporter v. Canada (A. G.), a case involving unauthorized circulation of two news articles among a handful of staff members working within the Federal Government. The articles had been legitimately obtained via an individual subscription to the site Blacklock’s Reporter, but the copyright owners claimed that the subsequent downstream uses were infringement. Justice Barnes disagreed, and declared fair dealing. “There is no question that the circulation of this news copy within the Department was done for a proper research purpose. There is also no question that the admitted scope of use was, in the circumstances, fair (para 33).”

Briefly, the two articles were read by Sandra Marsden, President of the Canada Sugar Institute, through her own subscription to Blacklock’s ReporterShe subsequently shared the content with Patrick Halley of the International Trade Policy Division of the Federal Government, who in turn passed the articles on to five other staff members. Throughout, their concern was the manner in which information provided by Marsden and Stéphanie Rubec (a government media relations officer) was used and not used, respectively.

In the eyes of the copyright owners, the sharing by Ms. Marsden, and the subsequent sharing within the department, were a violation of the terms and conditions governing the use of the news service. In the claim, Blacklock’s Reporter sought compensation, not by way of six individual subscriptions (each priced at $148), but via a department-wide site license of $17,209. At the end of the day though, Justice Barnes was more than satisfied that the discrete sharing of articles was reasonable; it was fair dealing.

The decision handed down contains a few gems. One in particular is weighty in its simplicity: “The act of reading, by itself, is an exercise that will almost always constitute fair dealing even when it is carried out solely for personal enlightenment or entertainment (para. 36).”

The decision is well-written and straightforward; it brings to mind the comments of James Grimmelmann (Professor of Law, University of Maryland) after an American appeals’ court supported the HathiTrust initiative: “The [decision] is sober, conservative, and to the point; it is the work of a court that does not think this is a hard case.” The same could be said of Justice Barnes’ work. Indeed, during the trial, Graeme C. Gordon of Loonie Politics quotes Barnes as saying, “I don’t think this case is as profound as you and others made it out to be.”

But what might be routine in the hands of Justice Barnes is scarcely so for readers. Particularly given the detailed commentary provided during the trial by Loonie Politics (Day One begins here) and the Centre for Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC’s complete summary is here). Emotions on the side of Blacklock’s Reporter ran high–a naked hostility to fair dealing is evident. While that in itself is not surprising, the degree to which the Federal Government was targeted as a private market, is.

In fairness to Blacklock’s Reporter, such action did not appear to be a part of their initial business model. When the owners put up their shingle in 2012, they did so with noble aspirations—to return to the days when “newspapers were run by journalists for citizens,” with the aim of providing serious news about the functioning of government. At the time, writing for the Tyee, Shannon Rupp observed the goal as being a return to the “old-fashioned business model [when] newspapers were part of their community and their links with the audience were authentic, involving a mutual loyalty that served to maintain readership.”

Returning to the case in hand; news of this dispute was first brought to our attention by Teresa Scassa in August when she described the extent of litigation being brought forward by the news site:

[lawsuits are pending 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.

Justice Barnes did not address the allegation of trolling but did remark that “there are certainly some troubling aspects to Blacklock’s business practices (para. 22).” These aspects are described by Graeme C. Gordon on Day 4 of the trial:

… there were two witnesses — one from Canadian Museum of History and the other from Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation — who both gave testimony of their poor experiences with Blacklock’s.  One of the witnesses said she felt “sort of duped into creating this situation.”  She also said Koski “didn’t seem to be accepting the answers that I was giving him” and that he wrote negative articles that were “misleading” and “misrepresenting” of facts.

CIPPIC indicates that the Museum of History and the Mortgage and Housing Corporation each acquiesced to demands for a $12,000 fee rather than face a legal challenge. CIPPIC also draws attention to the unwillingness of Blacklock’s Reporter to include a comment sent by a staff member in connection to the sugar tax story, before the article was posted:

Ms. Rubec stated that she had spent hours providing a comment only to be told Blacklock’s would print that the Department had provided “no comment”, she had followed up with an email the evening prior to publication, and still the article was not updated when it went live the following morning. She testified that she had been “frustrated” by the exchange.

Justice Barnes addresses this point and adds a footnote that must not be missed: “Not withstanding Ms. Rubec’s several on-the-record responses, [the article] improperly attributed “no comment” to the Defendant. This is a practice Mr. Korski adopts when he does not accept or approve of the answers he is given from a source; see Exhibits … and confirmed by Mr. Korski’s testimony (para.9 / footnote 1).”

Returning to the dispute itself, Justice Barnes brings much-needed clarity to the manner in which terms and conditions, when unilaterally imposed upon consumers, must be interpreted:

As the drafter of [its stipulated terms and conditions], Blacklock’s is bound to the interpretation most favourable to the users of its copy which, in this case, permitted Ms. Marsden’s distribution to the Department for a non-commercial purpose, and by implication, permitted a similar use by Mr. Halley (para. 43).

In his analysis of the unauthorized use, Justice Barnes begins with the observation that fair dealing “is a well-recognized right under the Act (para. 24),” and later confirms that neither copyright owners nor copyright users are permitted to pick and choose which parts of the system of copyright they will adhere to: “Absent consent, subscribers and downstream users are subject to the obligations imposed upon them by the [Copyright] Act. But at the same time they enjoy considerable protection afforded to them under the statutory fair dealing provisions (para. 44).”

And, with what might be my favorite remark, Justice Barnes firmly rejects the all-too-often asserted claim that every use of a copyrighted work represents lost income and thus must be compensated for:

It also goes without saying that whatever business model Blacklock’s employs it is always subject to the fair dealing rights of third parties. To put it another way, Blacklock’s is not entitled to special treatment because its financial interests may be adversely affected by the fair use of its material (para 45).

Readers may be curious, as I was, about the ancestry of the Blacklock in Blacklock’s Reporter. The news site takes its name from the late Thomas H. Blacklock (1873-1934), a revered member of the press from a bygone era. His career as a journalist including writing for multiple organizations within Canada as well as covering WWI. Respected by colleagues and readers alike, he was one of Canada’s best political correspondents of the early 20th century. At the time of Blacklock’s death, Prime Minister Robert Borden recounted this story:

In one of the campaigns when Mr. Meighen and Mr. King were rivals, they engaged in long-range verbal hostilities that were rather ineffective on both sides. Blacklock became impatient and wrote to Meighen a letter which Tom afterwards showed to me. It was keenly critical of the course Meighen was pursuing; and I recall one phrase which ran something like this: ‘Please bear in mind that the people of Canada are not in the least interested in your opinion of Mr. King or in Mr. King’s opinion of you.’ Meighen took the letter in very good part; and showed it to several of his friends. …
[Blacklock] was a rare spirit, and his memory will not pass from those who knew him best.
– Sir Robert Laird Borden, Letters to Limbo, University of Toronto Press (1972)

The Right Honorable Arthur Meighen spoke at Blacklock’s funeral, saying “there would be few citizens of Canada … whose passing would leave behind so many to speak well of their life and work (The Border Cities Star, 6 August 1934).”

During the trial Blacklock’s Reporter argued that, in order to sustain its operations, it was essential to aggressively police its copyright. Be that as it may, if aggression means misrepresenting facts in order to mount a sting operation, the organization ought to consider changing to a more appropriate name, one without the baggage of ethics and civility.

Commentaries on this decision abound; see Teresa Scassa, Howard Knopf, Michael Geist, Adam Jacobs. But CIPPIC shall get the last word: “The decision represents a solid affirmation of fair dealing rights, and one that should serve to deter copyright trolls from bringing meritless claims against obvious fair dealing practices in the future.”

 

what is Canadian content?

In Posts on November 6, 2016 at 6:35 pm

The mantra that our cultural creators are essential to the soul of Canada is doing double duty these days. Not only is it invoked in connection to the pending copyright review, but it has provoked a public consultation regarding Canadian content in a digital world. Melanié Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage, caught the attention of many when she publicly supported the claim that the internet is only a vehicle for consumption of culture with, as Michael Geist writes, culture being confined to “movies, television or music.”

It seems that on Minister Joly’s internet, worldwide networks only function in service of those industries that make an obvious contribution to GDP, be it in Canada or in another country. On her internet, there is no plethora of public domain content collected by volunteers and posted (legitimately) at Project Gutenberg or IMSLP. There is no impetus to share knowledge in the selfless manner exhibited by Sal Khan (founder of the Khan Academy) or John Page (a Silicon Valley software engineer who sought a better solution to mathematics instruction than the weighty tomes inflicted upon his son). There are no scholarly repositories, managed online, such as those pertaining to Emily Dickinson or L.M. Montgomery. There is no growing array of open-access quality-textbooks like those found at BC Campus or OpenStax.  And there are no individuals who facilitate the development of creative effort by sharing well-written, well-researched, and well-curated material. Maria Popova’s site BrainPickings comes to mind; it deserves to be declared an international treasure.

Those clamouring for Canadian content do not appear to give much thought as to what goes into developing that content. Financial well-being is as far as they go. Yet creative effort does not occur by the presence of money alone. Creativity needs knowledge, awareness, skill, diligence, luck, and something that lacks capture in a single word; loosely speaking, this indefinable element is a capacity to envision that which others may not.

That aside, the insistence on the importance of Canadian content invites the question – what is Canadian content?

My current assortment of library books includes two contenders. Dal and Rice is a memoir written by Wendy M. Davis describing life in pre and post-independence India. Davis was born in England, but resides in Edmonton; as best as I can tell, the work was written in Canada. Moreover, Dal and Rice was published by McGill-Queens Press. I will tentatively say that this is Canadian content.

But I am less certain about the second book; Eleanor Wachtel’s compendium The Best of Writers & Company. I am sure it would be declared Canadian content, given the unimpeachable fact that Wachtel is a Canadian citizen by birth, and has remained here throughout the development of her admirable career. Published by Biblioasis (the regional press that commands national acclaim), the Canadian qualifications appear unassailable.

And yet, the majority of the content is the handiwork of others. The book is a compilation of the transcripts of fifteen interviews conducted by Wachtel. True, Wachtel writes the introductory text that prefaces each interview, and Wachtel shapes the dialogue by posing the questions. But it cannot be said that she wrote the responses. Those words are (presumably) the independent creation of her fifteen subjects, only three of whom are identified as Canadian (Ann Griffin, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant).

Perhaps the hint of Canadian’ness lies in the front matter. Both books acknowledge contributions from Canadian taxpayers through the Canada Council for the Arts and the Book Publishing Industry Development Program. It sounds crass, to reduce the dialogue of Canadian letters to a matter of money, to have the temerity to ask: who paid for it? But it cannot be ignored that the patriots of Canadian content are expressly concerned with a similar question: who pays for it?

The answer, in terms of the consultation, is pointing towards a levy on the revenues of internet service providers. This mandatory contribution would be channeled towards continued development of Canadian content. In October, writing for the Financial Post, Josh Tabish of Open Media reminded all Canadians that our internet services fees are among the highest in the world. (It is no exaggeration to say that for Canadian families living in poverty, internet service already competes with food.) Three weeks later, Tabish and Denise Williams (a Coast Salish member of the Cowichan Tribes) writing for Motherboard, offered a further reminder that heightened internet service fees would hit indigenous communities the hardest.

No government should be so naïve as to believe that fees imposed on internet service providers in Canada will not be passed on to consumers. Whether it is called a levy or a tax will make no difference. As to whether the dollars accumulated will translate to more Canadian content, we will have to wait and see. The only assured outcome is less money with which even to purchase our much-vaunted Canadian content, creating the peculiar paradox of less content for Canadians.

Fortunately, the fact is that the internet will still provide delightful, educational, thought-provoking, and endearing content for everyone, from everywhere.

TPP consultation — my submission

In Posts on October 23, 2016 at 7:31 pm

Earlier this year, Canadians were invited to participate in a public consultation regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP).  The deadline for submission is 23:59 EDT, October 31, 2016.

My submission is slightly over 4000 words in length; too much for a blog post.  Below are the closing paragraphs; the entire document is available here.

Update: A thoughtful reader alerted me to a 404 response when trying to access my submission.  If the direct link does not work, try the attachment page.


… The principle argument to join the TPP seems to be that Canada cannot afford to be left out. Even if the agreement was only a matter of tariff and subsidy reductions, that argument is weak.[1] Given the nature of the entirety of the TPP, the costs of which will be felt through heightened expenditure for medicines, diminishment of Canadian culture, elimination of future innovation, absence of attention to public well-being for fear of international reprisals, and the loss of sovereignty when such reprisals are unavoidable, one has to ask: whom is this government wishing to please by committing Canada to the TPP?  The answer does not appear to be: Canadians. One must also ask: has our existing business community been sufficiently engaged to warrant our confidence that fulfilling their wishes will lead to better living for all?

That does not appear to be the case. In 2012, Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of Canada, indicated that instead of investing in the economy, Canadian businesses “were holding on to nearly half a trillion dollars in cash, an increase of 43 per cent since the end of the recession in 2009.”[2] Recently, the esteemed firm Deloitte, an internationally revered organization, released a damning report concerning the willingness of Canadian businesses to take the necessary steps to reinvigorate the economy. In Deloitte’s words, too many “lack an essential game-changing quality: courage.”[3]

By virtue of the TPP, the individuals that Canada most desperately needs to encourage – the innovative entrepreneur looking to develop new industries to drive the economy when our wood and water have been exhausted – will find that no amount of courage can overcome the hurdles put in place by their own government. As the actual trade measures of the TPP bring very modest gains to Canada, and the remaining components will inflict costs far in excess of those gains, adopting this agreement makes little sense beyond acquiescing to the corporate bullying that is likely happening behind closed doors. If that is the sole reason that Canada must go forward with the TPP, please be honest to Canadians about the government’s reasoning. Please do not pretend that this is solely about Trade.

The TPP is an international omnibus bill, the effects of which will be detrimental to Canadians. The greatest pain will be inflicted upon those youthful voters whom this government so assiduously courted.

Regards,

Meera Nair

 

 

[1] The C.D. Howe analysis estimates the loss to Canada for not joining the TPP; “The real GDP impact would be a negligible -0.006 percent in the first year, rising to about -0.026 percent in 2035.” The losses to existing industries are not taken lightly, but it is essential to wonder what industries could rise in their place, if unrestricted by the constraints embodied within the TPP.

[2] Michael Enright, “Canada’s cowardly CEOs are sitting on billions, rather than investing in the economy,” The Sunday Edition, 16 October 2016 <http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/timid-ceos-endless-war-in-syria-steve-earle-fall-in-vermont-1.3801572/canada-s-cowardly-ceos-are-sitting-on-billions-rather-than-investing-in-the-economy-michael-s-essay-1.3801574&gt;.

[3] Deloitte, The future belongs to the bold, <http://www2.deloitte.com/ca/en/pages/insights-and-issues/articles/the-future-belongs-to-the-bold.html&gt;.  As an aside, poetry lovers will enjoy the inference of Invictus by the report’s authors.