Does asking a friend for a copy of a newspaper article from a subscription website constitute copyright infringement? According to an Ottawa small claims court, it does.
The court recently issued a deeply flawed copyright ruling, providing a timely warning about the dangers of Canada’s restrictive digital lock rules that were enacted by the Conservatives over the strong objection of many copyright watchers.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that the case involved the president of the Canadian Vintners Association (CVA), who received an email from Blacklock’s Reporter, an Ottawa-based political publication, advising that he was quoted in an article discussing a recent appearance before a House of Commons committee. The man did not subscribe to the publication, which places its content behind a paywall, so he contacted a member of the association who was a subscriber and asked if he could see a copy of the article. When Blacklock’s Reporter learned that he had received a copy from the subscriber, it demanded that he pay for a full subscription or face a copyright infringement lawsuit.
While this does not sound like a copyright case, the Ottawa court ruled that the man had violated Canada’s copyright rules by breaching the publication’s paywall (an act it described as a circumvention of a digital lock) and awarded $11,470 in damages plus an additional $2,000 in punitive damages.
The Canadian digital lock rules were enacted in 2012 under pressure from the United States, which wanted Canada to mirror its safeguards on e-books, DVDs, and other digital content. Those rules typically cover circumvention of popular consumer products, but rarely involve website access. In fact, there are several U.S. cases that have concluded that sharing a valid username and password combination with someone else does not constitute circumvention for the purposes of the law.
Yet in the Blacklock’s Reporter case, the president of the CVA did not even try to access the publication’s site with someone else’s credentials. Indeed, it is difficult to see how asking for a copy of a lawfully obtained article could possibly be considered circumvention of a digital lock. Moreover, there is also a strong argument based on several Supreme Court of Canada decisions that providing the copy qualifies as fair dealing under Canadian copyright law.
As a small claims court ruling, the case has no value as precedent (and could still be appealed). However, it places the spotlight on the restrictive digital lock rules that have already caused a chilling effect within Canadian educational institutions, which often fear that circumvention for legitimate, educational purposes may violate the law.
The Conservatives established several narrow exceptions to the general prohibition on circumventing digital locks, but even they seemed to acknowledge that the exceptions are unnecessarily restrictive. Earlier this year, the government introduced a copyright bill to enhance access to materials for the blind which loosened the language in the digital lock exception for the visually impaired. Similar restrictive language can still be found in another exception for privacy protection.
While the Canadian exceptions were narrowly constructed and limited to a handful of circumstances, the U.S. has actually been expanding its digital lock exceptions. It recently introduced exceptions for car security research, repairs, and maintenance, archiving and preserving video games, and for remixing videos from DVDs and Blu-Ray sources.
Canada has the power to introduce new digital lock exceptions, but has yet to do so. During the final stages of the copyright reform process in 2012, the Liberals supported an amendment to expand the digital lock exceptions to cover circumventions for all lawful purposes. As Liberal MP Geoff Regan noted when speaking in support of the change, “what the government seems to want to do is preserve old models and ignore the fact that we have moved into a digital world.” Regan cited comments from software developers, librarians and archivists who all warned of the dangers of overly restrictive digital lock rules.
The Blacklock’s case may be an extreme example of digital lock rules gone wrong, but the case demonstrates that the wrong-headed approach has real-world negative consequences. When the copyright reform debate returns to Parliament Hill, the Liberals best chance to fix the problem is to follow their own advice by permitting circumvention for lawful purposes.