Meera Nair

adjudication by algorithm

In Posts on January 3, 2018 at 8:33 am

Monday’s issue of The Globe and Mail describes new initiatives to secure better returns for the music industry when musical content is used via radio or internet. Under a joint initiative between the University of Toronto and The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN), students are investigating how technology “… can parse through audio and video to find media using SOCAN member songs that should be paying royalties to creators and publishers.”

If a reader parses that sentence, the word “should” stands out. Merely using a SOCAN member’s song, or anyone’s song, does not automatically indicate that payment is required. While it is plausible that artificial intelligence can develop a capacity to engage in the contextual analysis required to determine whether a use is legitimate or an infringement, much will depend on the human input.

(As I write this, I recall undergraduate days and a computer science professor who was fond of saying, “garbage in, garbage out.”)

In her remarks about the article Carys Craig draws on the work of Niva Elkin-Koren, who has written at length about the perils of copyright adjudication by algorithm. For instance, in Fair Use by Design (2017), Elkin-Koren argues that: “… for fair use to serve its role in the twenty-first century, the checks that it intends to create on the rights of authors must also be embedded in the design of online systems.” She reveals some disturbing findings following analysis of 10,000 removal requests sent to Google, to the conclusion that “an algorithmic regime, which is neither overseen by the public nor by any judicial entity, is extremely vulnerable to misuse.”

Misuse may be deliberate, but misuse also occurs through confusion with respect to the very nature of copyright. Too many people believe that copyright means an absolute right of control; which it never has been, nor has it ever functioned in this manner. From its implementation into statutory law (1710), copyright has been structured as a set of limited rights. But despite this 300+ year ancestry, contemporary articles rarely provide any explanation of where control begins or where control ends.

That story is told through the Copyright ActSection 3.1 states:

For the purposes of this Act, copyright, in relation to a work, means the sole right to produce or reproduce the work or any substantial part thereof in any material form whatever, to perform the work or any substantial part thereof in public …

From 3.1 we see that copyright exists only when a substantial amount of work is being reproduced. Any algorithm that deems infringement by only identifying use, has vastly overstepped its bounds. Copyright may not even have arisen, let alone finding infringement. (For more about substantial/insubstantial, see here and here.)

If a substantial reproduction has occurred, copyright owners (which may include the writers, musicians, artists, etc. that created the work) are entitled to control the use of the work, through the measures enumerated in the Copyright Act. But that control is not absolute. It is limited, not only by time (Canada maintains the life+50 copyright duration mandated by international treaty) but also by many statutory exceptions. That list begins with fair dealing:

Section 29, fair dealing “Fair dealing for the purpose of research, private study, education, parody or satire does not infringe copyright.”

Sections 29.1 and 29.2 – which provide fair dealing for “criticism or review” and “news reporting” under conditions of attribution. Writers and publishers (perhaps those associated to national newspapers) might appreciate this exception.

(Over the last fifteen years Canada’s treatment of fair dealing has evolved into a measured, progressive exception and ensures that the system of copyright remains balanced and does not devolve purely into a means of rent-seeking. For instance, see here, here, and here.)

Canada’s jewel in the crown – S29.21 “Non-commercial user-generated content,” is more colloquially known as The MashUp Exception. With conditions (amateur creation, attribution, legitimate source material, and a consideration of market effect), creativity at its most nascent is protected as lawful activity. While the scope is vast, at the very least S29.21 seems tailor-made to protect video involving a dancing cat. (For more on 29.21, see here and here.)

Or if the musical accompaniment to the cat was unintended, the unsung heroic exception of S30.7 “Incidental Use” comes to mind:

It is not an infringement of copyright to incidentally and not deliberately (a) include a work or other subject-matter in another work or other subject-matter; or (b) do any act in relation to a work or other subject-matter that is incidentally and not deliberately included in another work or other subject-matter.

Incidental use is not limited to amateur creation, nor is it confined to any specific purpose of use. That said, it has provided Canadians with some bragging rights in a particular genre; as Howard Knopf wrote over a decade ago, “This section is the envy of American documentarians … .”

The entire list of exceptions is extensive and should be part of any algorithmic effort to pronounce judgement on use of copyrighted works. In this regard, artificial intelligence could lead to better outcomes for copyright owners and users alike, if such systems are appropriately seeded, capable of learning from existing and ongoing court decisions, and attuned to the nuance that permeates application of the law. To rephrase my former professor’s words: comprehensive information in, contextual decisions out.

how Canadian education really hurts creators

In Posts on October 16, 2017 at 8:12 pm

Last week, this tweet made the rounds:

The article referenced insists, yet again, that Canada’s 2012 copyright amendments are the reason for declining fortunes among Canadian publishers and creators.

Such a lopsided assessment of Canada and copyright is nothing new. While it is important that members of the education community continue to press Members of Parliament to engage in a comprehensive exploration of this matter, it is as important to turn our gaze inwards and redress the real failure of Canadian education with respect to nurturing creators and creative activity.

The creators I speak of are not those who belong to any union or collective society; most of these creators are still under-age.

Two weeks ago, a mother said to me, “My daughter is terrified of using anything off the Internet.” The daughter is of middle-school-age, and the source of that terror: dire edicts driven in at school. Thou shalt not steal from the internet for the purpose of schoolwork.

Judicial pronouncements notwithstanding, this is not an isolated misconception.

If generations of Canadian students are instilled with the view that education and creativity are contingent on permission from others; that every scrap of content (even when employed for something as innocuous as homework) must be paid for, Canada’s future looks bleak.

The irony of the current situation is that too many Canadian creators are deemed to have been ruined by virtue of our inclusion of “education” into fair dealing, while the fact is that too many Canadian educators are unaware of fair dealing to begin with. Fair dealing would certainly protect a student who wants to use a published picture, a video-clip, or a quotation of text, towards fulfilling an assignment, regardless of the provenance of that content.

Moreover, in addition to fair dealing, the Copyright Act offers many avenues by which a student’s copying in aid of learning finds legitimacy. But are educators aware of these measures?

For instance, are they aware of the importance of S29.21? Hailed by Ruth Okediji as a mark of integrity by Canada, that we as a nation support the type of copying that is the very foundation of creative effort, S29.21 is quite capable of also sheltering a school project. Northrop Frye’s immortal words bear repetition; poetry can only be made out of other poems…

Are Canadian educators aware of the very structure and language of the grant of copyright? S3.1 clearly indicates taking an insubstantial amount of work would not raise a question of infringement.

Continuing along the lines of first principles, do Canadian educators understand the existence of the public domain? That not every artifact (whether in print or digital) is protected by copyright. Facts and ideas are never protected material; copyright is only gained by creation of original expression. A grant of copyright will expire; from that time forward, anyone may use the creation for any purpose. And the exercise of a statutory exception renders protected-material, in that instant, as public domain.

Returning to the situation at hand, what about the long-sought-after Internet exception S30.04? Its language is clumsy, but given that Canadian education fought for this exception, to see it lying by the wayside is frustrating. Granted, the exception is framed in the language of “institution,” but it is only logical that a student attending an institution could rely on the same protection. Given the forceful language surrounding plagiarism in all educational institutions, it is safe to say that the attribution requirement will be met. (Further conditions limit the exception to some degree, but in the context of a student working on an assignment, those conditions will likely also be met.)

But, for simplicity, fair dealing is all that needs be said about an individual student engaged in learning. S.29 states: “Fair dealing for the purpose of research, private study, education, parody or satire, does not infringe copyright.” There are no fixed conditions; multiple Supreme Court decisions emphasize the contextual nature of fair dealing and provide guidance on determining fairness. The typical uses put forward by students (for a picture here, a quotation there) would easily stand up under such an analysis.

Children, teenagers and post-secondary students should not have to take on the task of learning all about copyright before they can comfortably do their homework. That responsibility falls squarely on Canadian educators. While it is undoubtedly easier to simply adopt a no-copying regime, it will not place Canada on any strong footing in a global economy where success is determined by a country’s capacity to think broadly, to be creative, and to develop knowledge-based industries.

Ideally, the word copyright would never need to be uttered to one under the age of 21. But as life is less than ideal, the best we can do for students is to reassure them that their constructive use of broad shoulders of the past to stand on, is not unlawful.

Students today are confronting a world not of their making, but are being handed the responsibility to fix it. To be able to rise to this demand, they need to engage fulsomely with the resources around them to further their creative aspirations, to cultivate their capacity to see something that others cannot, and to dream beyond the constraints of contemporary problems. This cannot happen if copyright angst is the manner in which students choose how to learn.

the golden age

In Posts on September 4, 2017 at 11:15 am

Another Labour Day has arrived and a new school year is underway. It seems befitting to continue exploring the often tension-ridden relationship between creators of educational material and users thereof. As I described last week via Policy Options: “the story of an ongoing disaster for writers and publishers—supposedly due to errant Supreme Court justices and negligent government—has played out in the press, at international gatherings and in literary journals.” Attacks on the post-secondary sector have been increasingly brazen this year;* for those who are becoming fatigued by the degree and volume of misinformation, I would like to share two points of good news.

First, this is not new.

There is a long history behind today’s dispute. Since the inception of copyright as a component of statutory law, copyright holders have sought to make copyright as expansive as possible and lessen any obligations that serve public interest as a whole. The Statute of Anne (titled An Act for the Encouragement of Learning…) provided copyright under conditions; as I have written before: “the privilege of the original exclusive right of reproduction came with the requirement that for each book published, nine copies were to be given to various university libraries, printed on nothing less than the best paper.” That requirement was decried, reneged on, and eventually discarded but not before many decades of familiar rhetoric had been unleashed.

When it became vividly evident that the statutory condition of library deposit (some called it the educational deposit) was being ignored, a professor of law protested vehemently. In A Vindication of the Right of the Universities of Great Britain to a copy of every new publication Edward Christian wrote:

When I hear much pity and commiseration expressed for the rights of poor authors, I wish to respect the rights of poor students, a class of men from whom poor authors themselves must derive their origin, and without whose successful labours nothing valuable in literature is ever likely to have existence. … By every honourable author [the deposit] would be paid with alacrity, as a debt of justice and gratitude, for the benefit which he must or might have derived from these common foundations of science.

Christian was not unaware of the objections raised to the requirement of deposit; he continued:

… It is sometimes observed, that besides the loss of the copy…, the author or proprietor will suffer considerably by the diminution in the sale of the work, when the members of the University have an opportunity of perusing it gratuitously. But that seems to be a fallacious and sophistical argument; for if the University thinks it worth purchasing, then the sale of one copy does precisely the same mischief to the author’s interest as the donation of that copy.

Christian’s words bring to mind those who insist that a librarian practicing fair dealing on behalf of students is unacceptable, despite the fact that the law (see Copyright Act, 30.2(1)) has long since allowed such practice. Moreover, our Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that fair dealing is effectively transferable—in 2004, librarians were permitted to act on behalf of their patrons; in 2012, an ISP and teachers could stand in the fair dealing shoes of subscribers and students respectively.

In any event, the early 19th century is an intriguing period of history. Ronan Deazley writes: “When one thinks of notable debates … in nineteenth century Britain one thinks of … the parliamentary wrangles surrounding the Copyright Amendment Act 1842,” but he brings readers’  attention to events related to a proposed 1808 amendment, titled:

Bill for the further encouragement of Learning in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, by securing to the Libraries of the Universities, and other public libraries, copies of all newly-printed books, and books reprinted with additions, and by further securing the copies and copyright of printed Books to the authors of such books, or their assigns, for a time to be limited.

Copyright holders protested; in the decades that followed, the familiar trope of starving authors reappeared. With Romanticism in full bloom, William Wordsworth penned these lines:

… For ‘Books’!” Yes, heartless Ones, or be it proved
That ’tis a fault in Us to have lived and loved
Like others, with like temporal hopes to die
No public harm that Genius from her course
Be turned; and streams of truth dried up, even at their source!

After three hundred years, a change of dialogue would be much appreciated. Which leads me to my second point; such dialogue can exist.

In May of this year, I attended Congress 2017 at Ryerson University, taking the rare opportunity to explore my interest in all things related to books. During one session, a representative from Canadian Publishing made the remark that he did not see himself in the debate about copyright/fair dealing, or authors/readers. That the labour expended by homegrown Canadian presses remains unseen and unaccounted for. As we ran out of official time, he and his colleague stood with me in the hallway so that conversation could continue. To their credit, when I mentioned the millions of dollars that Canadian universities spend on content,** they were surprised, and wishful. If only a fraction of those funds came to them, their situation would be different.

Allied to the challenges of securing income for small presses is the challenge of securing writers. The next day I listened to a publishers’ panel and was struck by one remark in particular: they nurture young talent but when an author “finally writes something with the potential to make money,” that opportunity is given to a larger, weightier press. All publishers present agreed on one thing: that it was essential to sell beyond Canadian borders. The Canadian market is simply not large enough to sustain them. This is, and has always been, the problem.

As I have written before, today’s challenges are as old as Canada itself; 19th century Canadian publishers were shut out of, not only foreign markets, but their own market. Without government support, the publishing sector could not grow. And the support that Canada wished to give, was denied by the political influence of publishers and copyright holders from both the UK and the US.

It was not until the later 20th century, amid the demise of Ryerson Press, that explicit government support emerged for Canadian publishers. (A delightful bonus from Congress 2017 was listening to Clive Powell’s presentation regarding the Ryerson Press archives). That support has continued, but, as noted last year by Kate Edwards (executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers) in The World Needs More Canada, support had remained static for the prior fifteen years. Even so, in that same article, Dan Wells (publisher of Windsor-based Biblioasis) had this to say: “… this really is the golden age of independent publishing in Canada.”

Wells’ enthusiasm aside, it need not mean we are not to try to focus attention on our homegrown publishers and writers. But it is unwise to take that step via copyright and blanket licensing. Efforts to manufacture a market out of legitimate unauthorized uses of copyrighted materials can only backfire. As I pointed out last week, the dual rise of (i) licensing of content directly between publishers and institutions; and (ii) openly licensed educational resources, points to a future where less proprietary information moves unsanctioned through academic corridors. To the extent that Canadian educators rely on educational publishers, that field is dominated by foreign firms. Just as demands for a uniform stamp of copyright in the 19th century did not serve Canadian publishers well, the call for uniformity through blanket licensing will again disproportionately benefit the competitors of our publishers.

For those who thrive on conflict, continuing to demonize educators and librarians as the enemy of writers and publishers is a desirable state of affairs. But as to whether this approach will benefit the writers and publishers in whose name the conflict is waged, is doubtful for the simple reason that copyright does not care about a Canadian writer, or a Canadian publisher. If we wish to target our own publishing sector and our own writers, we need to find another way.

For instance, provincial governments are taking active interest in developing open educational resources. Could not funds be set aside for grants to educational institutions (whether in the K-12 range or post-secondary) for partnerships with Canadian publishers, writers, artists, archivists, geographers, scientists, botanists and historians to develop Made-In-Canada content? Some educational institutions have their own facilities for printing; others are looking at the viability of establishing print-on-demand. A modest printing fee may well be more lucrative to local creators than the small margins available under a mass-market publishing model. Students and Canadian creators could all benefit.

There can be no easy solution to these problems, but conversation is more productive than acrimony. And so, to those two gentlemen, thank you.

 

Notes:

The Walrus recently published this missive, “How Universities Manage to Avoid Paying Writers for Their Work,” by Patrick Warner. He writes: “… why should writers, among the lowest-paid skilled workers in Canada—whose average income is less than 50 percent of the median national wage—be asked to subsidize the education system by making early contributions to the public domain?” Warner makes no mention of the millions spent by post-secondary institutions on content; instead he devotes considerable energy to marking librarians as a source of copyright discontent and enablers of unauthorized use: “… librarians had complained for decades that copyright law prevented them from offering better services to their users: desktop delivery of documents and electronic reserves being two services technology could easily allow.” Left unsaid is the prevalence of licensing of library resources; librarians are often operating under campus wide-licenses from content providers, many of whom allow electronic access and distribution.

** For instance, in 2013, then-President Stephen Toope wrote of the $25 million paid by the University of British Columbia alone for content, including $14 million spent directly on books by faculty and students. Last year, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries indicated that their 31 member libraries had collectively spent $293 million for information resources in 2014-2015. If the expenditures of smaller institutions are included, the number will be even higher.