Columns Archive

Copyright Permission Has No Place in this House

Appeared in the Toronto Star on May 14, 2007 as Let's Scrap Outmoded System of Permission

Earlier this year, Nancy Pelosi, the United States Speaker of the House, found herself embroiled in a copyright controversy arising from the posting of a Congressional hearing video on her website. While there was no question that debates in the House of Representatives and in the Senate are in the public domain and therefore not subject to copyright claims, C-Span, the U.S. political broadcaster, maintained that it held copyright in Congressional hearings where its cameras were used.

The incident sparked considerable discussion about whether it was appropriate for any private broadcaster to maintain copyright control over the public discussion and debates of elected officials.  It is a debate that is sorely needed in Canada given the current restrictive framework and the proliferation of political parody and criticism videos that regularly appear on video sharing sites such as YouTube.

The Pelosi controversy led Carl Malamud, a leading U.S. figure focused on making public works more readily available, to wrote a public letter to Brian Lamb, C-Span’s President and CEO, urging him to make thousands of Congressional hearing videos that the broadcaster was selling at an average price of US$169.50 freely available.

Within weeks, C-Span responded by introducing a liberalized copyright policy for all congressional hearings and press briefings, federal agency hearings, and presidential events at the White House.  The new policy, which C-Span stated was "intended to meet the growing demand for video about the federal government and Congress, in an age of explosive growth of video file sharers, bloggers, and online 'citizen journalists'" permits non-commercial copying, sharing, and posting of C-Span video on the Internet, with attribution.

More recently, similar questions have been raised in the U.S. about the permission needed to copy, share, and post video stemming from Presidential debates.  Several Presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Christopher Dodd, have called on the U.S. television networks to make debate footage freely available for non-commercial uses.  Last week, CNN became the first broadcaster to do so.

While the U.S. appears to be moving rapidly toward facilitating this emerging form of political speech, Canadians face more onerous restrictions.  Last February, a Conservative attack ad against Liberal leader Stephane Dion used footage from a Liberal debate during that party's leadership campaign, sparking questions about whether the brief video snippets required copyright permission.  Moreover, Canadian user generated political videos are not merely theoretical – YouTube is now home to hundreds of videos featuring political leaders such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Dion, and NDP leader Jack Layton as well as Environment Minister John Baird and Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda.

The Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC) is the primary source for Canadian Parliamentary debate and discussions, including the House of Commons Question Period and Committee hearings. CPAC broadcasts hours of Parliamentary hearings each week, yet unlike C-Span, it does not assert copyright over the broadcasts.  Instead, the broadcaster maintains that copyright in the House of Commons Proceedings rests with the Speaker of the House, while the Senate of Canada owns the copyright in the Senate Proceedings.

The Speaker of the House grants permission to use recordings in schools and for fair dealing purposes (private study, research, criticism, and news reporting).  Moreover, broadcasters licensed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission are permitted to use excerpts of proceedings in their news reports.  Any other usage – including parody or reposting of content by bloggers, webcasters and non-CRTC licensed entities – requires the "express prior written approval of the Speaker of the House of Commons."

The Senate has similar rules for using its footage.  Fair dealing can be used justify certain limited uses without permission, however the Senate adopts the position that it owns the copyright in all its audio and video.  It receives occasional requests from the public to reproduce proceedings that are reviewed on a "case by case basis."

These policies may have been suitable in an era when broadcasting was largely controlled by a select few licensed entities, but that is no longer the case.  The Internet provides the opportunity for millions of Canadians to participate in the political process through online commentary, discussions, and creative videos.

As some U.S. broadcasters have grown to appreciate, the ability to use clips of elected officials engaged in governmental activities should not require permission.  Under the current system, Canadians are forced to justify their use of video and face the prospect that those requests may be denied.  For example, someone seeking to create a parody video of the Speaker of the House must obtain the permission from the very subject of the parody.

With the growing emphasis on greater government accountability and transparency, as well as the proliferation of technologies that enable the creation of videos that can disseminated to a global Internet audience, Canada would do well to follow the U.S. lead by removing the requirement to obtain permission before engaging in these new forms of political speech.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

Comments are closed.