My fair dealing week posts conclude with a look at the link between fair dealing and the fundamental right to read (previous posts focused on the lawsuit to recover overpayments from Access Copyright, the importance of fair dealing for creators, freedom of expression, and news reporting). The critical importance of fair dealing as a user’s right was demonstrated in the 2016 copyright case between the Blacklock’s Reporter, an Ottawa-based online paywalled news site, and the federal government. Blacklock’s, which has filed multiple lawsuits against government departments, sued the Department of Finance for $17,209.10 over two articles that were sent to government officials from a paying subscriber concerned with comments found in the article. The articles were subsequently forwarded to several media relations personnel within the department.
The court placed fair dealing at the very centre of its decision:
To resolve this matter I need only decide whether the conduct Blacklock’s impugns is protected under the fair dealing provisions of the Act and, in particular, section 29. Although there are certainly some troubling aspects to Blacklock’s business practices it is unnecessary to resolve the Attorney General’s allegation that this litigation constitutes a form of copyright abuse by a copyright troll.
Affirming well established Supreme Court jurisprudence on fair dealing, the court emphasized that fair dealing is a user’s right that must not be interpreted restrictively. In this case, the court had little trouble finding that the department’s use of the articles qualified as fair dealing given that it was done for a proper research purpose, involved a limited distribution, the originals were obtained legally by a paying subscriber, and officials had a legitimate interest in reading the articles in order to hold Blacklock’s to account for questionable reporting.
The court’s fair dealing assessment is notable for its emphasis on the link between fair dealing and the right to read, expressing concern about the chilling effect if news sources were restricted from reading the results of their interviews with the press:
The articles contained information obtained from the Department in response to Mr. Korski’s queries. As a source, the Department had a direct and immediate interest in their content. Indeed, 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. Such a result cannot be in the public interest.
Indeed, the court characterized the use as simply an act of reading and warned against copyright being used to stop holding the press accountable for potential errors or omissions:
What occurred here was no more than the simple act of reading by persons with an immediate interest in the material. The act of reading, by itself, is an exercise that will almost always constitute fair dealing even when it is carried out solely for personal enlightenment or entertainment. While the public interest is served by the vigilance of the press, copyright should not be a device that serves to protect the press from accountability for its errors and omissions. The Department had a legitimate interest in reading the articles with a view to holding Blacklock’s to account for its questionable reporting.
Echoing the Supreme Court of Canada’s CCH decision in which it confirmed that “as an integral part of the scheme of copyright law, the s. 29 fair dealing exception is always available”, the decision closes with an important reminder with which to conclude fair dealing week:
It also goes without saying that whatever business model Blacklock’s employs it is always subject to the fair dealing rights of third parties.