The Federal Court has just released a decision in a case that raised issues of fair dealing and copyright abuse. Blacklock’s, an Ottawa-based online news agency, had argued that officials at the Department of Finance breached its copyright in news articles when these articles were circulated internally. The decision is an important confirmation of the ‘right to read’ in Canada and may go some way to dispelling the aftertaste of an earlier flawed decision by the Ontario Small Claims Court in a similar dispute.
Blacklock’s business model is to offer its news content on a subscription-only basis. Its articles are behind a paywall, and only subscribers, equipped with a password, can gain access to them. Individual subscriptions are available for $148 a year, whereas institutional subscription rates range between $11,470 and $15,670.
In this case, a reporter from Blacklock’s had interviewed the President of the Canadian Sugar Institute, Sandra Marsden, for a story relating to sugar tariff changes. The same reporter had sought comments from Department of Finance officials and ultimately had an exchange of email correspondence with the Department’s media relations officer. In what appears to be Blacklock’s practice, teasers about the story were sent out to Marsden by email and by Twitter. Based on the teasers Marsden became concerned about the accuracy of the article. She paid for an individual subscription in order to access it. After reading the article her concerns grew and she cut and pasted the article into an email, to a Department official. The same reporter wrote a follow up piece which Marsden also found problematic; she forward this piece to the Department of Finance as well. The two articles were circulated between a total of 6 Finance employees who discussed amongst themselves whether any follow-up with Blacklock’s was required. In the end it was decided that the matter should be dropped.
Justice Barnes found that there was no disputing that the Finance officials had used Blacklock’s copyright-protected material without paying for it or seeking Blacklock’s consent. The key issue was whether the use fell within the fair dealing exception for research or private study in s. 29 of the Copyright Act. After reviewing the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark fair dealing decision in CCH Canadian v. Law Society of Upper Canada and its more recent decision in SOCAN v. Bell Canada, he concluded that the use constituted fair dealing. He noted that, according to the case law, “research” does not have to lead to the creation of a new work of authorship; it can be ““piecemeal, informal, exploratory, or confirmatory”, and can be undertaken for no purpose except personal interest.” (at para 31)
Justice Barnes found that the Finance officials “had legitimate concerns about the fairness and accuracy” of the reporting in the article. Her further found the internal circulation of the piece was justified on the basis that “[e]veryone involved had a legitimate need to be aware in the event that further action was deemed necessary”. (at para 35) He identified a number of considerations that influenced his conclusion that the officials’ dealing with the material was fair. He noted that the articles had not been obtained by illegal means such as hacking the website; rather, they had been provided by a subscriber to the site who had legally accessed them and had forwarded them for “a legitimate business reason”. (at para 36) The articles had been sent to the Finance officials and not solicited by them; they received limited circulation; and they were not republished or used for any commercial purpose. The court also found that the two articles were a tiny fraction of the content available from the Blacklock’s site. Further, Justice Barnes opined that “a finding of copyright infringement against a news source for the simple act of reading the resulting copy is likely to have a chilling effect on the ability of the press to gather information.” (at para 36). Justice Barnes also stated that “copyright should not be a device that serves to protect the press from accountability for its errors and omissions.” (at para 36).
Blacklock’s had argued that its terms and conditions for access to its paywalled content had been breached when the material was forwarded to Finance officials, and that this breach should serve to negate a finding of fair dealing. Justice Barnes appeared sympathetic to this argument on its face, stating that it was a “relevant consideration” (though he did not state that it would necessarily be determinative). However, he cautioned that for this factor to be taken into account, the copyright owner would have to demonstrate that the user was aware of the terms and conditions and that the terms and conditions actually barred the conduct at issue. In this case, he found that none of the parties involved had either read or even been aware of Blacklock’s terms and conditions which were not readily part of the process for signing up for an individual subscription. He also found that the terms and conditions were not clear, stating: “On the one hand they seemingly prohibit distribution by subscribers but, on the other, they permit it for personal, or non-commercial uses.” (at para 42).
Blacklock’s also objected that a finding of fair dealing would undermine its business model – selling online news through a subscriber-only paywall. Justice Barnes was not particularly sympathetic, noting that “All subscription-based news agencies suffer from work-product leakage.” (at para 45) Further, he stated that “whatever business model Blacklock’s employs it is always subject to the fair dealing rights of third parties.” (at para 45) At the same time, he noted that by so stating, he was not endorsing “blameworthy conduct in the form of unlawful technological breaches of a paywall, misuse of passwords or the widespread exploitation of copyright material to obtain a commercial or business advantage.” (at para 45)
As I noted in an earlier comment on this case, the defendants had argued that Blacklock’s was engaged in copyright misuse and was acting as a kind of “copyright troll”. In fact, there are 9 other suits brought by Blacklock’s against the federal government on similar sets of facts. Noting that “there are certainly some troubling aspects to Blacklock’s business practices”, Justice Barnes nevertheless found it unnecessary to rule on the copyright abuse and trolling arguments in light of his findings on fair dealing. The other cases, which were stayed pending the resolution of this first dispute, may now end up being settled out of court.
In the course of his decision, Justice Barnes referred to what occurred in this case as “no more than the simple act of reading by persons with an immediate interest in the material.” (at para 36) This right to read is fundamentally important in a society that values knowledge and the freedom of expression. The decision makes it clear that business models for content distribution cannot run roughshod over certain fundamental users rights.