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What is the status of copyright protected documents or data sets that are provided to government institutions as part of regulatory, judicial or administrative processes? In my previous blog post I considered one instance where a court decided that a regulatory regime effectively expropriated the copyrights in works submitted to certain federal regulatory boards. In early May of this year, an Ontario court considered a similar issue: what happens to the copyright of land surveyors in the documents and drawings they prepare when these are submitted to Ontario’s electronic land registry system.

Keatley Survey Ltd. v. Teranet Inc was a class action law suit brought by a group of Ontario land surveyors against the private sector company authorized by the government to run its electronic land registry system – Teranet. Teranet recovers its costs of creating and operating the system by charging fees for access to and reproduction of the documents contained in the registry. The plaintiffs in this case argued that they had copyright in those documents, and that they were entitled to fees or royalties from the commercial use of these documents by Teranet.

It was undisputed by the defendants that there was copyright in the survey plans created by the plaintiffs. What was more contentious was the issue of ownership of that copyright. The defendants argued that copyright in the plans was owned by the Crown (in this case, the Ontario government). Under section 12 of the Copyright Act, Crown copyright subsists in works that are “prepared or published by or under the direction or control of Her Majesty or any government department. . . .”. The court rejected the argument that the plans were “prepared” under the control of government. Instead, Justice Belobaba ruled that the plans were produced independently of government by the surveyors at the requests of their clients. The fact that the plans might need to conform with regulatory requirements did not mean that they were prepared under the direction or control of the Crown. Justice Belobaba noted that if this argument were accepted, then “lawyers who file pleadings or facta at court registries would lose the copyright in their work simply because they complied with the statutory filing requirements about form or content.” (at para 33).

Teranet also argued that Crown copyright applied because the plans were “published” under the control of government. Justice Belobaba expressed doubts on this point, finding that the reference to publication in s. 12 of the Copyright Act did not independently create a basis for Crown copyright. He stated: “Just because the federal or provincial government publishes or directs the publication of someone else’s work (as opposed to governmental material) cannot mean that the government automatically gets the copyright in that work under s. 12 of the Copyright Act.” (at para 37) Nevertheless, he did not decide the matter on this point. Instead, he found that the legislation relating to the land registry system specifically establishes that any copyrights in surveys are automatically transferred to the Crown when they are filed.

Section 165(1) of the Land Titles Act and section 50(3) of the Registry Act both provide that “all plans of survey submitted for deposit or registration at a land registry office become “the property of the Crown”.” (at para 6). While this might simply refer to ownership of the physical property in the documents, Justice Belobaba found that other provisions in the statutes addressed the rights of the government to copy, computerize and distribute the documents, and to do so for a fee. He wrote: “The statutory prescription and authorization for copying the plans of survey strongly suggests a legislative intention that “property of the Crown” as used in these statutory provisions includes copyright.” (at para 7).

If copyright in these documents becomes the property of the Crown, how does this come about? The Copyright Act requires that any assignment of copyright must be in writing and signed by the owner of copyright. Justice Belobaba found that the declaration required of surveyors to certify that their plans are correct and in accordance with the legislation did not amount to an assignment of copyright. This is an interesting point. Ultimately, the court finds that copyright is “transferred to the province” when plans are deposited, but that there is no signed assignment in writing. This must, therefore, be a form of regulatory expropriation of the copyright in the surveys and plans. Here, any such expropriation is implicit, not explicit. Since copyright is a matter of federal jurisdiction, it is fair to ask whether a provincial government’s expropriation of copyrights is an improper interference with federal jurisdiction over copyrights. Certainly, a provincial government might require an assignment of copyright as a condition of the filing of documents; what is less clear is whether it can actually override the Copyright Act’s provision which requires assignments to be signed and in writing. There is an interesting jurisdictional question below the surface here.

Because the court concludes that the plaintiffs did not retain copyright in their surveys or plans, there was no need to consider other interesting issues in the case relating to fair dealing or whether there was a public policy exception permitting copying and distribution of the documents.

This decision combined that that in Geophysical Services Inc., strongly suggests that courts in Canada are open to arguments around the regulatory expropriation of copyrights by governments in the public interest. In both cases, the courts found support for the expropriation in legislation, although in neither case was it clear on the face of the legislation that expropriation of copyrights was specifically contemplated. As digital dissemination of information, public-private partnerships, and new forms of commercialization of data may impact the commercial value of information submitted to governments by private actors, governments may need to be more explicit as to the intended effects of their regulatory schemes on copyrights.

 

 


Can a government cut short the term of copyright protection in the public interest through a regulatory scheme? This question was considered in the recent decision in Geophysical Services Inc. v. Encana. In my previous blog post I discussed the part of the decision that dealt with whether the works at issue in the case were capable of copyright protection. In this post, I consider the regulatory expropriation issues.

Geophysical Services Inc (GSI) had argued that the government had violated its copyright in its compilations of seismic data and in its information products based on this data, when it released them to the public following a relatively short confidentiality period. The data had been submitted as part of a regulatory process relating to offshore oil and gas exploration. GSI also argued that the oil and gas companies which then used this data in their operations, without paying license fees, also violated their copyright. As discussed in my previous post, Justice Eidsvik of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench found that both the compilation of data and the related analytics were original works and were the product of human authorship.

The infringement issue, however, did not end with a finding of copyright in the plaintiff’s works. The outcome of the case turned on whether the government was entitled to release the information after the end of the 5-15 year confidentiality period established by the regulatory regime – and, by extension – whether anyone was then free to use this material without need for permission. The normal term of copyright protection for such a work would be for the life of the author plus an additional 50 years.

GSI was engaged in geological surveying, using seismic testing to create charts of the ocean floor. In order to engage in this activity it needed a permit from the relevant provincial and federal authorities: the National Energy Board, the Canada Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board and/or the Canada Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board. It was also required, as part of the regulatory process to submit its data to the relevant Boards. The process of mapping the ocean floor using seismic testing is time and resource intensive, and requires considerable human expertise. Once it was collected and compiled, GSI would license its data to offshore oil and gas exploration companies who relied upon the quality and accuracy of the GSI product to carry out their activities.

According to the regulatory regime any data or information submitted to a Board must be kept confidential by the Board for a specified period. Disclosure is governed by the Canada Petroleum Resources Act (CPRA). Section 101 of the CPRA provides that documentation submitted as part of the regulatory process is privileged and shall not be disclosed except for purposes related to the regulatory regime. In the case of data or information related to geophysical work, the period of privilege is 5 years. It was agreed by the parties that this meant that the data could not be disclosed without consent for at least 5 years. However, the plaintiff argued that its copyright in the materials meant that even if the privilege expired, the plaintiff’s copyrights would prevent the publication of its information without its consent.

In reviewing the legislative history, Justice Eidsvik concluded that it was the government’s clear intention to stimulate oil and gas exploration by ensuring that exploration companies could get access to the relevant seismic data after a relatively short period of privilege. The proprietary rights of GSI (and other such companies) could be asserted within the privilege period. According to the legislative history, this period was set as the amount of time reasonable to permit such companies to recoup their investment by charging licence fees before the data was made public. Justice Eidsvik found a clear intention on the part of the legislature to limit the copyright protection available in the public interest. The 5-year privilege period was designed to balance the rights of the copyright holder with the broader public interest in oil and gas exploration. She also found that the publication of the data was a form of compulsory licence – oil and gas exploration companies were free to make use of this data once it was released by the Boards. Essentially, therefore, the legislative regime provided for an expropriation – without compensation – of the remainder of the term of copyright protection. According to Justice Eidsvik, the inclusion of a no-compensation clause in the statute “acknowledges Parliament’s intent to confiscate private property in return for a policy it believed to be in the public interest to promote early exploration of its resources in the offshore and frontier lands.” (at para 237)

GSI argued that changes in technology combined with the high cost of collecting and processing the data had disrupted any balance that might have been contemplated in setting the original 5-year privilege period. In fact, although the legislation allows for the publication of the data after 5 years, the practice of the Boards has been to delay the release of the data anywhere up to 15 years. However, GSI still maintained that the balance was no longer fair or appropriate. Justice Eidsvik was clearly sympathetic to GSI’s arguments, but she found that as a matter of statutory interpretation the legislation was clear in its effect. She noted that it would be for Parliament to change the legislation if it needs to be adapted to changing circumstances.

The issues raised by this case are interesting. Copyright law already contains many provisions that aim to balance the public interest against the rights of the copyright holder. Fair dealing is just one example of these. In fact, the term of protection (currently life of the author plus 50 years) is another one of these balancing mechanisms. What the court recognizes in Geophysical Services Inc. v. Encana is that other federal legislation can limit the term of copyright protection in order to advance a specific public interest.

This is not the only circumstance in which copyright may be limited by laws other than the Copyright Act. Another case which has recently been settled without being resolved on the merits (Waldman v. Thompson Reuteurs Canada Ltd.—discussed in my blog post here) raised the issue of whether the open courts principle effectively creates an implied public licence to use any materials submitted to the courts as part of court proceedings. This would include documents authored by lawyers such as statements of claim, factums, and other such documents. In Waldman, these materials had been taken from court records and included in a pay-per-use database by a legal publisher.

There are other contexts in which materials are submitted to regulators and later made public as part of that process. (Consider, for example, patent disclosures under the Patent Act). The legislation in such cases may not be as explicit as the CPRA – Justice Eidsvik found this statute to be very clear in its intent to make this data open and available for reuse after the statutory confidentiality period. In particular, she cited from the parliamentary debates leading up to its enactment in which disclosure in the interest of stimulating oil and gas exploration was explicitly contemplated.

One question going forward is in what circumstances and to what extent do legislated requirements to disclose data or documents terminate copyright protection in these materials. Another interesting issue is whether a provincial government could establish a regulatory regime that effectively brings to an end the term of copyright protection (since copyright falls within federal jurisdiction). In an environment where intellectual property rights are increasingly fiercely guarded, Parliament (and the legislatures?) may need to be more explicit about their intentions to cut short IP rights in the public interest.


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