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 Reporter. She 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.”