Québec Copyright Infringement Decision About the Photograph of a Sculpture Serves Valuable Lesson Regarding Risk of Relying on a Mere Permission from the Author

A Québec court issued a copyright infringement decision this week which seems worth mentioning even though it’s merely a small claims court decision. Not too surprisingly, the decision at issue, Gadbois v. 2734-3540 Québec Inc. (2020 QCCQ 11186), concludes that a photograph circulated by email did infringe the copyright of the author of the sculpture shown therein. Even though we’re dealing with a small claims decision and a simple fact pattern, the decision seems worth discussing a little this morning, if only for the lesson it serves us as to copyright-related permission.

This decision stems from the holding of a 1995 art exhibition which the organizer then sought to promote through email messages that included a photograph of one of the sculptures shown at the event. Twenty-five (yes, 25) years later, the sculptor sues the organizer of the exhibition for copyright infringement based on the alleged failure of the organizer to obtain his authorization to circulate photographs of his work.

Before the court, the organizer of the event claimed that the sculptor had given his permission, even though the company was unable to produce a copy of the writing through which such an authorization had allegedly been given. Unfortunately for the defendant, this prompted the judge to refuse to even entertain the possibility that permission had been given, something the judge may have been somewhat harsh about.

At any rate, this case illustrates that even though the Copyright Act does not require that reproduction permission be granted in writing (as opposed to assignments), relying on an authorization that was not documented in writing may prove hazardous once in front of a judge. Even though legally it does works, in principle, if litigation occurs, you may not be able to demonstrate adequately that sufficient permission really was granted by this particular author in those particular circumstances.

Even though this decision isn’t exactly revolutionary nor precedent-setting, it does serve as a good reminder that getting copyright permission in writing is a useful precaution, and may well avoid unnecessary litigation later. Failing to do so may well the author to later claim they had not in fact consented to whatever was done (such as sending photographs by email) and, thus, that they’re allowed damages because of the copyright infringement.

As to such writings, one should note that they need not be complicated or lengthy documents to prove effective for this purpose. Heck, a simple paragraph (or even one sentence) may sometimes be all you need to show that permission did exist. Contrary to what some may think, such permission need not be described in long-winded documents with numerous complicated provisions. What you want to avoid is simply being involved in eventual litigation where you end up having to testify that the author did authorize you to do X, where the author himself testifies to the contrary—this is not something that will normally require producing complex documentation.

Even though, in the case of Mr. Gadbois’s sculpture, we’re dealing with a fairly insignificant damage award ($1,000), the defendant may well have been better off retaining a writing showing the author’s permission. This decision also shows that such problems may materialize years after the events, like here, with events dating back to 1995. Given how long copyrights remain protected for, failing to document permission may come back to haunt you years and years later—one more reason to avoid this problem, especially through something as cheap and easy as a written permission.