Meera Nair


In Posts on May 24, 2017 at 5:46 pm

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the Copyright User Rights Access to Justice Symposium hosted by LTEC (Law and Technology) Lab of Windsor Law. The presentations were impressive in their depth and breadth; ensuing discussions illustrated that the intersection of user rights with access to justice is an extensive mine for exploration. Congratulations, and thanks, are due to Pascale Chapdelaine, Erica Lyons, and all the staff who contributed to the makings of a thoroughly enjoyable event.

At the outset, we were reminded that we stood in the realm of the Anishinaabe, the territory of the Three Fires Confederacy of First Nations, comprising the Ojibway, the Odawa, and the Pottawatomie. Such words take on particular significance, convinced as I am that aboriginal legal traditions, particularly those pertaining to land, are instrumental to the underpinnings of the system of copyright. We are accustomed to thinking of the Copyright Act as bijural; arguably, influenced as it is by three modes of law (aboriginal, civil and common), the Act is trijural. This perspective framed my presentation; more details will come another day.

For now, my focus is in connection with a remark made in passing by Ruth Okediji. In the context of discussion about the non-commercial user-generated content exception, Professor Okediji stated what we all know to be true – that this behavior is universal.  But her next words were striking: “Canada had the integrity to acknowledge it.” It was an exalting moment to hear such recognition, to which I may add: Canada should encourage it, as ought any country that values creativity. Creativity does not occur through set rules and methods; creativity operates in its own ecosystem according to an unpredictable dynamism of encounter and engagement, including reimagining and re-creation. Playing with work that has come before is the very foundation of creativity.

My conference junket continues next week at Congress, beginning with a public event concerning the upcoming review of the Copyright Act (jointly hosted by the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English and the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities) on Monday, May 29 at 1:30pm in KHW61. It is to be followed by a retreat to the 19th century via a joint event held by the Bibliographic Society of Canada and the Canadian Association for the Study of Book Culture. I hope to ensure that Sir John Thompson—a man of integrity, who was committed to the rule of law—is not forgotten in our sesquicentennial commemorations.

six factors if necessary

In Posts on February 24, 2017 at 9:58 am

But not necessarily six factors.

Below is some of the content I covered yesterday during a panel discussion Fair Dealing–Where do we go from here?  With the aim of simplifying the fairness analysis, I drew attention to some pre-CCH Canadian case law (see here and here).  My thanks to the University of Alberta for the opportunity to participate in the discussion.

Earlier this week, I mentioned Canada’s progress in developing a mutually respectful system of copyright, one that does more than pay lip-service to creativity. Fair dealing plays its part in this system of limited rights, as is necessary to maintain the goal and structure of copyright set some three hundred years ago. That fair dealing has become part and parcel of the legal landscape is perhaps best exemplified by remarks from a Federal court judge: “I don’t think this case is as profound as you and others made it out to be.”

Fair dealing is here to stay; students and teachers have every reason to make use of it.

However, it would be reasonable to say that there is still a great deal of timidity among educational institutions over actually using fair dealing.

The principal element of a decision of fair dealing is the contextual analysis to determine if a use is fair. This approach was set via CCH Canadian where the Court relied on six factors for analysis: (i) purpose of the dealing; (ii) character of the dealing; (iii) amount of the dealing; (iv) alternative to the work; (v) nature of the work; (vi) effect of the dealing on the work. These factors were included in fair dealing policies developed by national educational bodies and subsequently implemented at institutions across the country.

But therein lies a problem. While it is essential to remember that fairness is embedded in context, we have also to remember that the six factors cited are not sacrosanct. In CCH Canadian, the Supreme Court also emphasized that the framework of exploration must be malleable. That discussion of fair dealing is hailed as a progressive development because it struck down the 20th century tendency to see copyright, or exceptions thereto, in terms of mechanical rules to be applied without consideration of context. By simply adopting new rules, we risk that estimable gain of progressive development.

To be sure, rules carry some value in setting general guidelines for institutions as a whole. When fashioning policies for use of copyrighted works, the 10% / 1 chapter position of the prevailing policies is a reasonable starting point. If more is desired, then discussion with copyright personnel is the next step. Yet the larger goal should be to encourage thought with regard to any decision to copy. Fair dealing is not, and never should be, confined to the perspective of measure.

A challenge to such copyright literacy is the six-factor analysis. Intimating that teachers carry out such an expansive consideration risks evoking horror, even paralysis, in that audience. But that audience is well-positioned to grasp a more tailored analysis.

Fair dealing is not used purely to obtain reference materials; fair dealing also shows itself in the creative effort of developing learning resources. Such resources benefit from the inclusion of quotations, images, charts/tables etc. Inclusion of any one of these items may well be legitimate simply by virtue of being an insubstantial portion of a larger work; yet it is beneficial to engage in a fairness analysis. Particularly, as such cases lend themselves to a two-factor examination that everyone is capable of understanding and executing:

1. What is the purpose of using the copyrighted material?

Mere conventional thinking would tell us that the purpose is education, and education is one of the permissible categories of s.29 Fair Dealing. But a more precise answer pays dividends in terms of risk management. Teachers choosing to use particular materials should be clear (at least to themselves) as to how that content serves an educational objective. The answer need not be couched in pedagogical jargon, it could be as simple as it “illustrates a concept.” This modest exercise of thought sharpens focus on both the objective and the material, and (inadvertently perhaps) places a curb on the amount copied. Without resorting to stipulations of measure, such consideration encourages the teacher to use only what is needed, nothing more.

2. How is the material distributed?

We ought not to forget that teachers stand in the fair dealing shoes of their students. Hence, distribution should be in light of what is necessary to meet the needs of that finite group. Placing content in a secure, password-protected learning platform, or via handouts in class, serves that goal. Whereas posting content to a public website is not as confined in its reach. (I am not ruling out wider distribution such as placing a dissertation in an open-access institutional repository–more on that another day). In any case, if students were then to circulate the carefully curated material, there is no liability to the teacher or institution.

To those who are concerned at the seeming loss of four factors, they have not disappeared.  Rather, they are subsumed by the situational aspects of this type of copying. As noted above, the aspect of amount is implicit to considered thought regarding why a work (or portions thereof) is being copied. The question of alternative resources becomes less germane as the explicit language in Alberta v. Education rules out the implication that schools ought to purchase a copy of every conceivable work for every conceivable student. (And if the work copied is from institution-wide subscription resources, this factor becomes irrelevant.) The nature of the work tends to be published material, eminently suited to fair dealing. As to effect, the Supreme Court has emphasized that such dealings should not be read in the aggregate. And the Copyright Board has explicitly rejected the former dictum of anything worth copying is worth paying for (para 110 here and  para. 217 here).

To some that may sound harsh, but only until one realizes that the Board has not ruled out paying for copying when appropriate. The Board only rejected a century-old proposition which was inspired by the conduct of a rival publisher. The Board, like the Supreme Court, now emphasizes a holistic examination of any dispute.

On a different note; in 2016 I met an American lawyer who was–to put it plainly–in awe of Canada and our development of fair dealing. Three Supreme Court decisions, progressive amendments passed by government, two Copyright Board decisions, and fifteen years of considered dialogue led by legal scholars, practicing lawyers, university counsels and many, many librarians. In part wonderment, part frustration, she asked: “What are you waiting for?


fair dealing week 2017

In Posts on February 19, 2017 at 7:23 pm

Tomorrow marks the start of Fair Dealing Week in Canada. There is much to be proud of with the steady advance in the realm of exceptions, gained not by intemperate action but by deliberative thought on the part of the judiciary, the government, the Copyright Board, and, institutions and individuals across the country. A moment of celebration and pride is warranted.

Yet, significant challenges remain. Educational institutions continue to be a favorite target with copyright owners. Those who take aim at fair dealing lack a cogent argument grounded in either legality or economics, and so must rely on hyperbole. The picture painted is that educational institutions steal from an industry which is on its deathbed, to the detriment of those individuals who carry the very soul of the nation.

In the absence of informed discussion, emotion can masquerade as logical thought. With our sesquicentennial year upon us, the emotion index will likely exceed what hysteria we have already seen. Unfortunately, many Canadians (and their representatives in government) are unaware of the nuance of copyright, that it is a system of limited rights. This post is written with the hope of reaching some of those individuals.

For those who do not yet know what fair dealing means in an educational environment, have a look at Student Life without Fair Dealing. This presentation was created a few years ago by Annie Ludbrook of Ryerson University; it remains the best illustration of how necessary fair dealing is to learning, and takes only a minute or two to view.

And, if interested in a larger story, please see below.

“Millions of times a day copyright material is probably shared in this country.”[1]

That phrase stood out among the miscellany that a Sunday-morning excursion into Twitter had unearthed. Said by a Federal court judge, it was in reference to a dispute over unauthorized uses of material protected by copyright. This dispute (later resolved in favour of fair dealing) is only one of many skirmishes in an ongoing Great Battle in the realm of copyright. Ever since it became apparent that digital technology set on world-wide networks has considerable potential for distribution, copyright holders and copyright users alike have claimed those streams of sharing. To some, sharing represents a threat to the very production of creative material; to others, such sharing is creativity’s salvation.

But the contemporary clash of views is not the first Great Battle fought in the name of copyright. Matthew Arnold, renowned poet and social commentator of 19th century England, bestowed the title on a Royal Commission which probed the very structure of copyright as a grant of monopoly power and openly questioned its usefulness. Eventually, the outcome supported the continuance of copyright as it was designed and has functioned so ever since.

But a critical point has almost been lost to history; the decision was not unanimous. Ten of the fifteen commissioners attached dissenting opinions to the final report, dissatisfaction brewed even among the victors. One could say that the only element of absolute unanimity was the implicit boundary that circumscribed any assertion of copyright: copyright was a means to govern the conduct of players in the commercial book market.

Meaning, copyright was a trade regulation imposed on corporate entities. Yet by virtue of what will long be rued as a poor choice of vocabulary, today the language of copy suggests that copyright may privatise the intellectual and creative activity of individuals.

Copyright falls within a branch of law addressing what has come to be known as intellectual property, a phrase of equally dubious construction. We are told that Thomas Jefferson was the first to associate intellectual creation as property, a word expressly chosen in order to break with the English tradition of declaring such rights as monopolies (a practice of control that functioned to the detriment of the people in England).[2]

Ironically, three centuries later, intellectual property rights are just as capable of being harnessed towards monopolistic behavior. For instance, efforts by literary estates to curtail scholarly work,[3] a steep escalation of textbook costs,[4] and the thirty-year effort it took to reach an international agreement allowing some manner of adaption and distribution of copyrighted materials to aid visually-disabled people,[5] should disabuse anyone of the notion that copyright can do no harm.

A cogent argument for some control over intellectual creations does exist. It is reasonable that writers, artists, musicians, et al, should receive remuneration when their creations are exchanged in a professional marketplace. Many will agree that the likelihood of development of creative effort is heightened when there is assurance of some rights of control after creativity has been exercised. But perpetual furor over copyright eclipses a vital factor: that control is insufficient to bring about creativity.

Creative effort does not occur by the presence of rights alone. Creativity needs knowledge, awareness, skill, diligence, luck, fodder, and something else that lacks capture in a single word; loosely speaking, this indefinable element is a capacity to envision that which others may not. A confluence of all these elements might result in developments in art, music, literature, or science.

In this light, the creative process seems less and less the purview of law, and more and more some manner of alchemy, or worse. According to Voltaire: “One must be possessed of the Devil, to succeed in any of the arts.”[6] Alternatively, one constant theme regarding creative effort is to engage with other creative effort. William Faulkner’s advice: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad …. You’ll absorb it. Then write.”[7] Or this declaration from Margaret Atwood: “The first thing I did when starting this project was to reread the play. Then I read it again. Then I got my hands on all the films of it that I could find, and watched them. Then I read the play again… then I read it again, backwards.”[8]

And yet, law dominates discussions of fostering creative effort. Likely because law is specific, law can be written down, law can be upheld, or, violated and then wielded as an instrument of retribution. Addressing the law meets a political goal—to show that something is being done. Three centuries ago, copyright law was created under the façade of supporting starving authors; that trope reappears as each development in media is cast as a threat to literary or other artistic endeavors. The refrain repeats: Dire consequences will lie ahead for society as a whole, unless something is done.

Today, the repercussions of amending copyright law far exceed the mandate of trade regulation. Technological development has brought us to a point where we live our private lives through copies. Unauthorized use is a vital step to creativity and needs protection.

Fair dealing is a very modest exception to the monopoly of copyright. A fair dealing of copyrighted work must not only fit within prescribed categories of use (education is among them) but must also survive a fairness analysis. The educational community takes its responsibilities seriously; no institution would sanction unrestrained copying as fair dealing. Yet this is the image presented by those who prefer to cast fair dealing as something to fear and something to blame.


[1] Justice Barnes, quoted by Graham C. Gordon, Loonie Politics. 24 September 2016.

[2] The praecursor to copyright were the printing privileges bestowed upon guilds; the most powerful among them holding control over the printing of widely used classes of books such as catechisms, bibles, ABCs, and lawbooks. Philosopher John Locke condemned all monopolies as hoarding money and property to the detriment of the kingdom and was particularly incensed at the system which enabled booksellers to charge high prices for poorly produced books.

[3] A case of note was the unwillingness of James Joyce’s estate to recognize fair use in scholarly work; see Schloss v. Estate of James Joyce.

[4] For instance, “…new textbook prices increased by a total of 82 percent over [2002-2012],” see Students Have Greater Access to Textbook Information, U.S. Government Accountability Office. There does not appear to be comparable data for Canadian students, but as products are generally more expensive to purchase in Canada, it is unlike that the situation would be better on this side of the border.

[5] James Love, “A Treaty for the Blind?Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Information Journal (2006), Vol. 22 Issue 12. See also Meera Nair, “Wonderful news from Marrakesh,” in FairDuty, 6 June 2013,

[6] Quoted in Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1957).

[7] “The Best Writing Tips From William Faulkner,” 25 September 2013, Huffington Post.

[8] Margaret Atwood, 24 September 2016, The Guardian.