Meera Nair

Sir John Thompson

In Posts on December 11, 2016 at 10:55 am

We are told he is the best Prime Minister Canada never had. Sir John Sparrow David Thompson served only two years in that capacity; an untimely death on 12 December 1894 cut short his stewardship. But his contributions to Canada spanned much longer than those two years would suggest.

Under Sir John A. Macdonald, Thompson held the position of Justice Minister (sworn in on 26 September 1885), a responsibility he maintained to his death. While deeply respected by his Conservative colleagues, Thompson’s sterling character did not always meet with approval from all; one party stalwart moaned: “He won’t even consider whether a thing is good for the party until he is quite sure it is good for the country.”[1]

As Justice Minister, Thompson undertook the monumental task of giving Canada its own Criminal Code. Working closely with a bi-partisan committee, the result was a statute that reflected Thompson’s skills as jurist, and dedication as a Canadian. His first biographer, J. Castell Hopkins, would argue that the Code was far more deserving to be named for its maker than the Code Napoleon. Thompson also served as an arbiter in the Bering Straits dispute between Canada and the United States, and he staunchly supported the position that Canada should set its own copyright course—that indeed Canada had the right to do so as a self-governing Dominion.

Thompson’s commitment to the rule of law, fairness and justice were unparalleled, earning him praise from both sides of the aisle. He was, in a word, a statesman. Throughout though, he was confronted by the internecine Catholic/Protestant mistrust, a challenge that has largely faded from Canadian memory but was as potent in its time as the misplaced-hostility over multiculturalism is today. Thompson, a Methodist turned Catholic, initially turned down Governor General Lord Stanley’s request to assume the helm following Prime Minister Macdonald’s death—Thompson felt that his Catholicism would provoke trouble for the government. But when MacDonald’s successor John Abbot resigned on account of poor health, Thompson agreed to lead the Conservative Party and thus too the Government of Canada.

My interest in Thompson was sparked during my doctoral exploration of Canadian copyright history.[2] In 1889, under Thompson’s guidance, the Canadian Copyright Act was amended as necessary to address the complexities of Canada’s geographic and political position, caught as the country was between American capitalism and British imperialism. Passed with unanimity by Canadian parliamentarians, the Act encouraged the development of a national publishing industry by ensuring the legitimate reprinting of works of foreign authors, through a compulsory royalty. This measure applied only if the copyright holder did not seek publication in Canada within one month of publication elsewhere. Canadian readers and all authors would have benefited.

But the passage of the 1889 Act required disengagement from Imperial copyright law, as also from the blanket pronouncements of the recently-formed Berne Convention. Thompson argued, not for Canadian autonomy, but for recognition of the autonomy as it already existed in the British North America Act of 1867 and had further developed in the decades following Confederation. Unfortunately, although Thompson held the better argument, the political clout of British and American publishing industries ensured that such recognition was withheld.

British intransigence towards Canada stemmed in part from the desire to bring about an Anglo-American copyright treaty; Canada was a valuable bargaining chip. Even before a treaty of sorts eventually transpired, the Canadian market was offered up by savvy copyright holders who sought private arrangements with American publishing houses. If assured that no similar arrangement would be made with a Canadian printer, American publishers were willing to provide some compensation to the owner. As P. B. Waite describes, the tone was not always benign: “You will get no compensation whatever from us, if you permit any Canadian house to publish your work.”[3]

These practices were so widespread as to merit inclusion in a Royal Commission on Copyright. Aware of the gentleman’s agreement among American publishers (some might say honour among thieves), whereby the right to continued publication was reserved to the house that gained first publication, the Commissioners observed:

[S]ecured from competition … it is worth while for [American publishers] to rival each other abroad in their offers for early sheets of important works. We are assured that there are cases in which authors reap substantial results … and instances are even known in which an English author’s returns from the United States exceed the profits of his British sale …. (para. 242)..

Notably, that same Commission report supported the measures that Canada would later attempt to enact in 1889 (paras.206-207).

When the long-desired Anglo-American Treaty came into being, it provided much less benefit than what Canada had offered. The United States would not abandon its manufacturing clause—ensuring the betterment of American industry and loss to the British counterpart—meaning that foreign authors could only obtain copyright for works set and printed within the United States. Faced with that expensive proposition, English authors and publishers were left with little to show for the years of waiting. Following the passage of the American Copyright Bill, C.J. Longman (of the House of Longman) did not mince words:

The Act … offers protection—on conditions—to any British author.  There are already signs that the value of this protection may be over-estimated in this country. It is desirable therefore to point out that to those writers whose published works are before the world, … but have failed to attract the attention of pirates, the Act gives no advantage. If there had been any prospect of republishing those books profitably, the enterprising American publisher would certainly have availed himself of his chance when he could have had them for nothing.  ….
– “The American Copyright Bill,” The Economic Review 1.2 (1891).

Despite the inadequacies of the American arrangements, the British Crown continued to refuse Canada’s requests for independent action regarding copyright. Even though Sir Charles Trevelyan had emphasized for years that partnering with Canadian publishers would allow England to gain the upper-hand in the reprints market of North America as a whole. That logic, not to mention the greater benefit for English authors, fell on deaf ears. English authors and copyright holders could neither envisage altering the model of monopoly copyright, nor tolerate diversity within colonial implementation of the law.

Thompson continued to press his case with clarity, evidence, and appeals to the rule of law. Invited to serve as a member of the Queen’s Privy Council, he traveled to London in December 1894 to be sworn in. In the days prior to the ceremony, Thompson discussed the copyright issue with members of the Colonial Office, and achieved some recognition of the legitimacy of Canada’s position: “… the claim of the Canadian legislature is a good one, and the burden of proof that it is contrary to public policy rests on those who contest it.”[4] But whatever ground Thompson had gained, was never to be capitalized on. Within hours of the swearing-in ceremony Thompson collapsed at Windsor Castle and died. He was forty-nine.

Without Thompson’s leadership, Canada could not achieve meaningful independence on matters relating to copyright.

Notes:

[1] Quoted by Gordon Donaldson in The Prime Ministers of Canada (Doubleday Canada Limited, 1994) p.53

[2] I cover this period of  history in detail in “The Copyright Act of 1889–A Canadian Declaration of Independence,” Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 90, Issue 1, p.1-28.

[3] Quoted by Peter B. Waite in “Sir John Thompson and Copyright, 1189-1894: Struggling to break free of Imperial Law,” Bulletin of Canadian Studies.  Vol.6 No.2, p.36-49.

[4] Ibid.

 

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.