Meera Nair

Posts Tagged ‘Indigenous’

my remarks to the Industry Committee

In Posts on December 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of appearing before the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, to speak on the subject of the copyright review.  Also participating were Carys Craig (Associate Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School) and Patti-Anne Tarlton (Chief Operating Officer of Ticketmaster, Canada).

Due to internal delays, the meeting was quite late in starting. Unfortunately, Carys and I had flights to catch that evening and so were unable to fully participate in discussion with Members of Parliament.

My remarks drew from the brief I submitted some months ago. In my allotted time I endeavored to place emphasis on the importance of supporting our next generations as they hone their capacity for creative and innovative thought—a capacity that Canada needs. I also reminded the Committee that altering copyright law must be placed in the context of Canada’s particular copyright history–a history where our law was designed to support foreign corporations.


Good afternoon. My name is Meera Nair, I am the copyright officer for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, but I am here in my capacity as an individual. For nearly fifteen years, my research interest has been with systems of copyright, both contemporary and historical.

One of the challenges in dealing with copyright is that people tend to forget that it was designed to regulate industries. Because of an accident of vocabulary, it now includes individuals. People also forget the baggage we have carried for 150 years; that our system was largely designed by other countries, to serve their advantage. To the extent that we have successful writers, musicians, artists and publishers, those gains came despite the system, not because of it.[1]

So, what are we talking about? The system of copyright is composed of two parts; there are rights of control and there are rights of use. Why do we have it? For a very long time, we had no purpose. Copyright was simply one of 29 responsibilities handed to the Federal Government in 1867, with no explanation attached. But if we look at our multicultural roots—the influence of both civil law and common law—we see a shared goal: to protect the process of creativity.[2] While our Supreme Court has operationalized this as seeking a balance between creators and users,[3] it might be helpful to take one step back and simply think about this process; how do we enhance it? How do you assist individuals to maximize their creative potential? And from that, there is reasonable historical data to believe that larger social wellbeing will follow.

I am drawing from the work of B. Zorina Khan, an economist who explored American intellectual property policies at the time of their nation building years. The U.S. deviated from the IP norms of the day, and instead focused on educating its people and creating a framework which encouraged everyone to enter the arena of creativity.[4]

A part of that framework was the theft of other nations’ work—to be clear, I am not recommending that. But we could adopt the best aspect of current American policy: their structure of fair use. It would give leeway for new ideas to take form. It bears remembering that the United States has capitalized on this, with repeated development of billion-dollar industries.[5]

A speaker from an earlier meeting alluded to challenges faced by Americans with respect to fair use; he quoted Lawrence Lessig as saying: “Fair Use was simply the right to hire a lawyer.” Just to put that in context; Lessig wrote those words after losing a pivotal Supreme Court case in the United States. He had led a constitutional challenge, arguing that Congress had overstepped its bounds by lengthening copyright term. The loss was hard to take; while fair use is meaningful, it is no substitute for shorter copyright terms.

Adding to Lessig’s distress was likely the reality that the United States had made a bit of mess of fair use in later 20th century. They are correcting that misstep; but at the time, their courts began treating fair use as simply a response to market failure.

Fortunately, the Canadian judiciary has already ensured that Canada can avoid such a self-defeating approach.[6] Creativity is a cumulative affair; whether we are talking about books, music, software, medicines or a free press, creativity relies on exposure to and use of prior work. Some uses must remain above the cycle of permission and payment, if creativity is to be sustainable.

In 2012 we came up short on fair use.[7] But one pleasant addition stood out: Section 29.21 (known as the YouTube/MashUp exception). I would have called it the Creativity exception. It gives future Canadian creators some reassurance that their government does not wish them to be prosecuted for doing what Canada needs them to do–which is to hone their creative skills.

We need our next generations to be at their best to address the intractable problems that are being left for them to solve. Drawing from the combined wisdom of Julie Cohen and the late Oliver Sachs, it is important for individuals to play with whatever content they are interested in, to cultivate a capacity to see something that others cannot, to build the curiosity and determination that we hope will carry them into ground-breaking intellectual effort across all disciplines.[8] Much is being made of our innovation agenda—we will not get innovation just for the asking, we need to nurture it.

Regardless of whether we have strictly enumerated exceptions, or a more flexible condition of fair use, we cannot gain the fullest potential on either unless we adjust the current language of digital locks.

This Committee has been asked repeatedly to do more to support Canadian writers and Canadian publishers; this is a worthy goal. But I hope proposed solutions will not include billing students for materials already paid for, or worse, billing students for works that are not prescribed at all.

Moreover, if we want to target Canadian operations, copyright is not an effective means. More money will leave the country than will stay in. As I wrote in my brief: “Copyright is a blunt instrument; it cannot distinguish between literary superstars and novice writers, between fostering a homegrown operation and serving an international conglomerate, or, between writing for an audience and writing for financial gain.”

As I mentioned at the start, our Act draws from both our common-law and civil-law ancestry. The Copyright Act has long been recognized as being bi-jural; we cannot help but see two of our Founding Nations in it. However, the third is present. Indigenous paradigms about creative endeavor and property are implicit to the system of copyright as we practice it today.[9]

Acknowledging this will not solve the difficulties encountered by Indigenous communities with respect to protecting their intellectual property. But given the objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we ought to recognize that the Copyright Act is tri-jural.

I would like to close by acknowledging that we have gathered on the lands of the Algonquin people.

I look forward to your questions. Thank you.

 

[1] Meera Nair, “History begins with geology (a response to Margaret Atwood),” Fair Duty, 20 September 2016.

[2] “Where social utility meets with natural rights is in the belief that creativity itself is valued. Otherwise, the underlying purpose of copyright in either tradition becomes meaningless, raising the question of why have such laws at all? Therefore, natural rights must apply to everyone, including past, present, and future creators. Likewise, consideration of societal benefit must ensure that future creative processes are not stifled by the system purporting to encourage creative effort;” Meera Nair, “Copyright and Ethics—an Innisian Exploration,” (2009) Global Media Journal (Can. Ed.) Vol. 2, Iss. 1, (23-39) 30, .

[3] “…a balance between promoting the public interest in the encouragement and dissemination of works of the arts and intellect and obtaining a just reward for the creator …;” Théberge v. Galerie d’Art du Petit Champlain inc., 2002 SCC 34 at para 30.

[4] Those policies fostered American ascendency from, “an undistinguished developing country with an agricultural economy to world leader in less than one century;” B. Zorina Khan. The Democratization of Invention: Patents and Copyright in American Economic Development, 1790-1920. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 5.

[5] Meera Nair, “Outdated copyright law hinders innovation and growth,” Edmonton Journal, 12 September 2018. Details here.

[6] Fortunately, Canada has already taken steps to avoid falling down this rabbit hole; “The availability of a licence is not relevant to deciding whether a dealing has been fair. As discussed, fair dealing is an integral part of the scheme of copyright law in Canada. Any act falling within the fair dealing exception will not infringe copyright. If a copyright owner were allowed to license people to use its work and then point to a person’s decision not to obtain a licence as proof that his or her dealings were not fair, this would extend the scope of the owner’s monopoly over the use of his or her work in a manner that would not be consistent with the Copyright Act’s balance between owner’s rights and user’s interests;” CCH Canadian v. Law Society of Upper Canada, 2004 SCC 13 [CCH] at para 70.

[7] Numerous organizations sought to discredit fair use; “… to each objection raised, a nuanced explanation or rebuttal exists;” see Meera Nair, “Fair Dealing at a Crossroads,” From Radical Extremism to Balanced Copyright—Canadian Copyright and the Digital Agenda, ed. Michael Geist (Toronto: Irwin Law, 2010): 90-120 (103).

[8] “Both copyright law and policy have shown little interest in understanding the processes by which these roles are performed, nor in inquiring what users need to perform their roles in a way that optimizes the performance of the copyright system as a whole (348).” See Julie Cohen,“The Place of the User in Copyright Law,” Fordham Law Review, Vol. 74, (347-374) 348, 2005. “Imitation and mastery of form or skills must come before major creativity;” see Oliver Sacks, “The Creative Self” in The River of Consciousness (2017) 137.

[9] Meera Nair, “Indigenous paradigms,” Fair Duty, 25 June 2018.

Indigenous paradigms

In Posts on June 25, 2018 at 8:09 am

This post is a bit late; it is my contribution to #IndigenousPeoplesDay.

In December 2017 Ministers Navdeep Bains and Melanie Joly jointly issued instructions to Members of Parliament charged with carrying out the Review of the Copyright Act. Among many details, the Ministers invited Members “to pay special attention to the needs and interests of Indigenous peoples as part of Canada’s cross-cutting efforts at reconciliation.”

Historically, Indigenous creative effort has not fared well under the modern paradigm of intellectual property rights. From looting of artifacts to casual help-ourselves approaches to indigenous design, indigenous assets, often described as cultural property and traditional knowledge, are used in ways that violate their traditions and laws. To the extent that others commercialize such assets, rarely do gains flow back to the community.

From the first meeting on, Committee members sought input from witnesses on this topic. In oral testimony, and submitted briefs, there is consensus that this challenge needs attention; this may be the one point of unity among all stakeholders of the copyright review. That in itself is encouraging.

However, it is difficult to make progress on this front under the auspices of copyright. The Copyright Act is structurally antagonistic to the principle characteristics of Indigenous cultural property and traditional knowledge, namely they lack specific authorship (which is key to claiming ownership under the Act) and may date back to antiquity (which invariably places them in what is considered the public domain*).

As we wrestle with the intricacies of this challenge, there are other ways to show support and facilitate more respectful use of Indigenous materials.

In July 2016, An Open Licensing Scheme for Traditional Knowledge was jointly put forward by the Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (University of Ottawa) and the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre (Carleton University). The scheme “aims to give Indigenous communities new tools to exert control over their traditional knowledge [and] clarify expectations of those seeking licensing rights and other downstream uses (8).”

Modeled in the fashion of Creative Commons licenses, where a visual label indicates the creator’s wishes in terms of subsequent use, the researchers revealed a slate of possible labels including: Give Back / Reciprocity; Community Consent, Use-Based / Noncommercial; Education and Research Only; etc.  They also drew attention to two other similar, active, operations with respect to labels as a means of communication: the Mukurtu Project and its sister organization Local Contexts. While communication cannot guarantee respect for the wishes of Indigenous communities, it is a starting point.

In addition, Canadians could consider that Indigenous paradigms about creative endeavor are more akin to the creative process, than modern insistence that creativity is an individual exercise and that property is strictly private. My research looks at the overlap of Indigenous paradigms with Canadian copyright law — not in terms of the specificity of legal language, but in the processes that underwrite and shape creativity itself.

To be clear, when I use the phrase Indigenous paradigms, I am not suggesting a uniformity of thought, tradition or law, across the many Indigenous communities situated within Canada. Rather, the phrase is an attempt to describe a different approach to creativity and property than that which followed in the wake of Judeo-Christian theological teachings or (for the more secular minded) the writings of John Locke. Modern conceptions of intellectual property are rooted in assumptions about property itself – chief among them, the misconception that a right of property is absolute in its control and capacity to exclude others. (Even the most treasured property – land – is subject to measures deemed essential to the public good: building codes, zoning divisions, environmental laws, etc.)

All music, art, poetry and literature are creative outcomes via time immemorial communities of musicians, artists, poets and writers. This is hardly a revelation; Northrop Frye’s words have been with us for over sixty years: “Poetry can only be made from other poems, novels from other novels. All this was much clearer, before the assimilation of literature to private enterprise concealed so many of the facts of criticism.”

Briefly, that assimilation to private enterprise was largely carried out through the introduction and expansion of copyright. Those events are intertwined with the rise of the reading public, the shaping of a book market, new technology; events that combined to alter the perspective of where art, music and literature came from. While previously art was allied to the Divine – inspired by and in service to – the Romantics were never too happy with a world in which books were articles of sale, and writers were mere producers of commodities. As authors wrestled with changing streams of income and the need to compete in a marketplace, the idea of the individual creative genius whose work is original unto himself served to shelter the esteem of an author and justify the boundary of property around a creation. Ironically though, authors themselves were never a focal point in the development of copyright law.

In concert with the universality of the process of creativity is a bond between creative artifact and the author, artist, musician etc. In intellectual property law, this has a name: moral rights. (The term is misleading; despite the somewhat pious inference, the rights reflect personal connections between the creator and the thing-created.) Among moral rights is the protection of the integrity of the work – the creative artifact has a persona,** which sits in relation to the creator.

And there might be another relationship present; Rudyard Kipling famously spoke of daemons who led the creative process, writers must “drift, wait, obey.” Contemporary writers are not shy of acknowledging this third-party, Elizabeth Gilbert and Philip Pullman come to mind. Even without this partner, writers may have the eerie feeling that their characters are writing their own story. (I welcome input from writers of fiction.)

This nexus of relationships occurs with the creative artifact situated at the centre and a community of writers engaging in relationship with it. A set of relations that is similar to the structure of Indigenous cultural property/traditional knowledge. It is the interpretation of property that differs between Indigenous and non-Indigenous paradigms; in Indigenous hands, property is far more immersive, far more relational, one belongs to the property as compared to the converse interpretation of property by non-Indigenous legal paradigms.***

As I wrote in my brief to the Standing Committee: “… recognizing indigenous traditions that we implicitly already follow, supports the objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, particularly the recurring call for better integration of indigenous law into Canadian life.

Much as we acknowledge that the physical ground beneath our feet is Indigenous territory, we ought also to acknowledge those Indigenous paradigms which serve as the foundation to our daily creative effort.


* My research offers an alternative, legitimate conception of the public domain that is more flexible in its composition — I draw from the work of Jessica Litman and our Supreme Court decisions.

** Anishinaabe legal scholar Aimée Craft reminds us that some jurisdictions have granted personhood to bodies of water. That physical or cultural property could have agency, at least in legal proceedings, is, again, not a revelation.

*** Brian Noble, “Owning as Belonging/Owning as Property …” in Catherine Bell and Val Napoleon, eds., First Nations Cultural Heritage and Law (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008) 465.