Large copyright sign made of colorful jigsaw puzzle pieces by Horia Varlan (CC BY 2.0)

Large copyright sign made of colorful jigsaw puzzle pieces by Horia Varlan (CC BY 2.0)


Fixing Fair Dealing for the Digital Age: What Lies Behind the Copyright Review’s Most Important Recommendation

The long-awaited Canadian copyright review report features numerous good recommendations, many of which were rejections of industry lobbying: a rejection of new restrictions on fair dealing for education, rejection of Bell’s FairPlay site blocking initiative, and rejection of limits on safe harbours in response to the so-called “value gap.” Yet the most notable recommendation is the committee’s support for fair dealing for the digital age by expanding its scope and ensuring that it applies equally in the analog and digital worlds.

I wrote about the need to fix fair dealing for the digital age in May 2018:

there is a need to fix fair dealing by ensuring that it is not hamstrung in the digital environment. The Canadian test for fairness is consistent with those found in other countries, but there are barriers that exist for fair dealing in the digital world that are not found in the analog one. The most obvious example are Canada’s digital lock rules, which exceed the requirements at international law in the WIPO Internet treaties. As many warned five years ago, Canada has created a system that allows for unnecessarily restrictive limits on digital fair dealing. There is a need to fix this problem by establishing an exception within the anti-circumvention rules to allow for circumvention for any lawful purpose.

Moreover, the fair dealing purposes should be expanded, ideally by adopting a “such as” approach to its list of enumerated purposes that would ensure the law remains relevant in the face of new innovation. Alternatively, given Canada’s prioritization of artificial intelligence, there is a need for a fair dealing exception for text and data mining similar to that found in many other countries.

The copyright review addresses all three issues. First, the committee recommended adding much needed flexibility by allowing circumvention for purposes otherwise permitted under the Copyright Act:

However, it agrees that the circumvention of TPMs should be allowed for non-infringing purposes, especially given the fact that the Nintendo case provided such a broad interpretation of TPMs. In other words, while anti-circumvention rules should support the use of TPMs to enable the remuneration of rights-holders and prevent copyright infringement, they should generally not prevent someone from committing an act otherwise authorized under the Act.

This change will help ensure that fair dealing rights are treated in an equivalent manner in both the analog and digital worlds.

Second, it recommended adopting the “such as” approach to fair dealing to make the current list illustrative rather than exhaustive:

Parliament should make the list of purposes enumerated under section 29 of the Act an illustrative list rather than an exhaustive one. Doing so would increase the flexibility of the Act by allowing a broader range of admissible purposes to emerge from existing ones under the guidance and the supervision of the courts—for example, from criticism to quotation, from parody to pastiche, and from research to informational analysis. Such an amendment could allow new practices to fall under fair dealing, such as “reaction videos” and video game streaming. The Committee emphasizes that the purpose of a dealing is only one of many factors taken into account when determining whether this dealing is indeed fair under section 29 of the Act.

The increased flexibility would make the Canadian fair dealing provision closer to the U.S. fair use model, but retain the certainty that comes with decades of jurisprudence on the issue.

Third, committee called for the introduction of a new exception for informational analysis, the Canadian equivalent of a text-and-data mining exception to facilitate artificial intelligence and machine learning activities:

The evidence persuaded the Committee that facilitating the informational analysis of lawfully acquired copyrighted content could help Canada’s promising future in artificial intelligence become reality. The Committee therefore recommends:

Recommendation 23
That the Government of Canada introduce legislation to amend the Copyright Act to facilitate the use of a work or other subject-matter for the purpose of informational analysis.

All three recommendations would go a long to way fixing fair dealing. How did the committee arrive at the right, forward-looking conclusion? As described in Chair Dan Ruimy’s opening remarks, the committee made a commitment to hear from all stakeholders with no pre-determined policy outcomes:

As Chair, my main concern was to make sure that the review would be informed by as many different perspectives as possible. Committee members were encouraged to ask all manner of questions to better understand the impact copyright law has on Canada’s modern economy and Canadian creators, even though such questions often led to difficult discussions. We did not presume what the outcome of this lengthy and complex undertaking would bring, only that the Committee would give anyone the opportunity to present oral or written evidence. I am honoured to have witnessed such an important and thoughtful conversation.

This was a textbook example of good policy development with a committee that heard from hundreds of stakeholders, took the time to cite every single one, and let the evidence dictate their recommendations. In doing so, the committee has laid the foundation for future Canadian copyright reform.


  1. Pingback: "A More Balanced Approach to Copyright Reform": Michael Geist On the Statutory Review of the Canadian Copyright Act | Authors Alliance

  2. Canadian copyright report wasn’t a surprise for me either. Timothy Vollmer called the recommendations “a glimmer of hope” while the innovation and creativity will get promotion and the user rights will be protected.

    Adrian Altenburger