Meera Nair

teachers and students, copyright and liability

In Posts on September 1, 2014 at 2:47 pm

Congress 2014 was held at Brock University this past spring; included among the customary panel discussions was a series of debates concerning copyright, fair dealing, licensing and open access. Titled Copyright and the Modern Academic, the series sought to widen discussion about the means by which information flow is facilitated in learning, teaching and research. Videos of the series are available at the Canadian Association of Learned Journals (see here) and at the Brock Video Centre (see here).

I was particularly interested in the third debate, Access Copyright—Friend or Foe, with speakers Howard Knopf and Roanie Levy. Knopf is a lawyer with Macera & Jarzyna, author of Excess Copyright, and a long-standing advocate for a more nuanced understanding of copyright and fair dealing. Levy is the Executive Director for Access Copyright, formerly General Counsel and Director of Policy & External Affairs for Access Copyright, and equally passionate about the roles of protection and licensing towards development of content. (Fuller biographies of both speakers are given approximately 5:30 minutes in.)

The arguments of Knopf and Levy were lively and thought-provoking, but what remains uppermost for me is the first issue raised from the audience at the beginning of the Q/A (at approximately 58 minutes in). It focused upon Access Copyright’s licensing terms that protect teachers and students in the context of teaching and learning, but not the subsequent behaviour of the student:

Most of us use Blackboard or Moodle; we upload links to articles, we upload articles, we create wikis, we want students to comment, we are creating a discourse community among our students asking them to critically analyze concepts or issue … It is not surprising that many times students download those articles and then those articles could now be posted on a student’s blog or on a student’s Facebook page … we all know how things move across the Internet. … I would personally find [the licensing terms] quite limiting, if I had to worry about that (emphasis mine).

Levy was reassuring that the discourse community, composed as it is of students and teachers (more broadly speaking, the educational body associated to the license) were safe within their actions. Levy was also emphatic that the educational community did not extend to the world at large: “students need to be made aware that content cannot just be shared with the entire world … sharing proprietary content that is not their own should not be encouraged.”

To which Knopf immediately stated that such sharing should be encouraged: “if what the student or professor is doing is fair dealing.”

Levy’s and Knopf’s remarks are not mutually inconsistent – quite the opposite in fact. Each statement reinforces the other. It is entirely plausible, and beneficial, for teachers to simultaneously state that piracy is undesirable and fair dealing is desirable. Discussion will, over time, encourage students to understand the nuance and care that goes into an evaluation of fair dealing. In the more immediate future, such conversation between teachers and students further exemplifies that post-secondary institutions take this matter seriously and are developing systems of good practice that amount to more than merely posting rules to a website.

Regrettably, with time running out and other questions waiting for attention, the crux of the first question was not addressed. More specifically, does a teacher have to worry about the personal conduct of a student outside the activities encouraged within class, with materials licensed at the choice of the teacher? The short answer is No.

A longer answer would suggest that in the scenario where a student’s personal behaviour is alleged as infringing, the copyright holder of the material in question might bring a complaint to the attention of the ISP providing the platform used by the student. Depending on the jurisdiction, the ISP might remove the material (under notice-and-takedown as found in American law) or forward the complaint to the student (under notice-and-notice as set within Canadian law). In neither case is the teacher involved.

An even longer answer would suggest that if anyone should insinuate that the teacher and/or university were liable, a look at CCH Canadian will quickly allay any worries. While that case is known best for its support of fair dealing, the Justices also confronted a claim that libraries were responsible for the conduct of its patrons with regard to self-serve photocopiers. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writing for a unanimous court, rejected that claim:

[E]ven if there were evidence of the photocopiers having been used to infringe copyright, the Law Society lacks sufficient control over the Great Library’s patrons to permit the conclusion that it sanctioned, approved or countenanced the infringement. The Law Society and Great Library patrons are not in a master-servant or employer-employee relationship such that the Law Society can be said to exercise control over the patrons who might commit infringement. … Nor does the Law Society exercise control over which works the patrons choose to copy, the patron’s purposes for copying or the photocopiers themselves (para 45).

If the Supreme Court of Canada has deemed that a library is not responsible for activity conducted within its premises, with materials provided by the library and via the library’s own equipment, because of an absence of control of people, materials, or equipment, then it is illogical to suggest that a teacher is liable for activity of a student, carried out by the student’s own initiative, on a platform independent of the classroom.

Regardless of the status of the material involved (licensed, purchased, or utilized through exceptions to copyright), teachers are not implicated by personal copyright infractions of their students.

  1. One of the fundamental principles of English common law is that an individual is responsible for her/his own acts. However, it must be acknowledged that there are exceptions such as the employer’s responsibility for an employee’s actions. But these are specific exceptions arising out of the ability of one to control the actions of another. Therefore, I find it strange that someone would even think that a teacher could somehow control the actions of a student and should be liable for the acts of the student. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin stated the situation succinctly and accurately in the quoted passage. Ms. Nair in her blog quite accurately states the law by responding to the question with the word “no”. Let us hope that this issue has now been laid to rest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s