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.