The Ontario Small Claims Court has issued a decision in a copyright dispute that is extremely unfriendly to users’ rights or the right to read in Canada. The case involves the increasingly common practice of placing digital content behind a paywall.
In this case, the defendant is the Canadian Vintners Association (CVA). It represents the interests of wine producers in Canada. The plaintiff is the company which produces Blacklock’s Reporter, a news service that provides original digital content to subscribers. The CVA was aware of Blacklock’s Reporter, but had decided that it was not interested in subscribing (at a corporate rate of $11,470 per year.)
On December 13, 2013 Blacklock’s published a story that discussed the testimony of the defendant’s president and CEO, Dan Pazsowski, before a Commons Committee. Pazsowski was sent an electronic bulletin notifying him that he had been quoted in the story. Since his company did not have a subscription to the service, he contacted a colleague at another company that did have a subscription and asked if they could forward a copy to him. They did so. He then contacted Blacklock’s to discuss the content of the story, about which he had some concerns. He was asked how he had obtained access to the story, and was later sent an invoice for the cost of two personal subscriptions (because he had shared the story with another employee of his organization). The cost of two subscriptions was $314 plus HST). The defendant’s refusal to pay the invoice ultimately led to the law suit for breach of copyright.
The defendant had asserted a fair dealing defence, arguing that he had sought access to the article out of concern that it contained inaccuracies that he wanted to take steps to correct. This was argued to be fair dealing for the purpose of research or private study, which is permitted under the Copyright Act. Notwithstanding the very broad scope given to the fair dealing exception by the Supreme Court of Canada, Judge Gilbert ruled that there was no fair dealing. He wrote: “it cannot be said that the purpose here was genuine given the fact that nothing came of the research (obtaining the full article) once obtained. Giving the Defendants the benefit of the doubt here that the intention was genuine, the follow through was not.” (at para 57). This novel proposition suggests that research must result in some concrete or tangible outcome to amount to fair dealing. As any researcher knows, there may be many false starts or cold trails. In any event, the court seems to overlook the fact that Pazowski actually contacted Blacklock’s to discuss their article with them. It was this contact that led to the lawsuit. Justice Gilbert also rejected the fair dealing claim on the basis that the article had not been legally obtained. This, of course, is a significant fair dealing issue in the context of paywalls and other barriers to access to works. Given, however, that Pazowski obtained the article from someone with legal access to the database, there was room here for a more nuanced assessment.
If the decision itself is not enough to raise your eyebrows, then the damage award surely will. Keep in mind that the plaintiffs originally sought the price of two personal annual subscriptions as compensation for the access to the article by the defendant ($314 plus HST). The court ordered damages in the amount of $11,470 plus HST – the cost of a corporate annual subscription. Judge Gilbert cited as justification for this amount the fact that the defendants “continued to stand steadfast to the notion that they had done nothing wrong while knowing that they had taken steps to bypass the paywall.” (at para 64). In addition, he awarded $2000 in punitive damages.
A business that is entirely reliant on providing content behind a paywall clearly has an interest in ensuring that access to that content is limited to subscribers to the extent possible. But does this mean that no other access to the content can be tolerated? A person who has legally purchased a book may lend it to another to read. Is there room for the law adopt an equivalent approach for content behind pay walls? It certainly does not seem appropriate that a news service can publish articles about individuals and then have the courts support them in their attempts to so securely lock down that content that the individual cannot even see what was written about them without having to pay for an annual subscription. This decision is so entirely lacking in the balance mandated by the Supreme Court of Canada that one can only hope it is nothing more than a strange outlier.