Beware of Nick-of-time Copyright Registrations

In Canada, copyright registrations comes cheap, very cheap. Nevertheless,.businesses and creators seldom register their rights, at least until they’re faced with a known infringer and want to sue. A recent Federal Court shows us this may not be wisest course of action when it comes to adequately protecting one’s I.P. rights.

The case at issue is that of Patterned Concrete Mississauga Inc. v. Bomanite Toronto Ltd. (2021 CF 314), a case involving a copyright owner faced with copying of some of its business forms, by a competitor called Bomanite Toronto Ltd. Faced with a clear case of copying, the copyright owner sued for infringement and eventually won a judgment awarding $8,000 in statutory damages, for each work that had been copied.

In addition to the plaintiff managing to secure such a judgment through summary proceedings, this case is also a good example of how proper copyright registration may well play a role when attempting to sue for infringement.

Here, even though PCM had done the right thing by obtaining copyrights registration certificates, prior to actually suing, it had done so around the time it first contacted the eventual defendant Bomanite. Under such circumstances, courts will sometimes question the value of the registrations at issue, given that they may have been obtained with the specific purpose of suing a specific infringer, as opposed to being obtained in the normal course of protecting the business’ IP rights, for no particular other reason.

Fortunately for the plaintiff, here the defendant failed to properly argue against existence of the copyrights at issue and/or ownership of those copyrights. Had the defendant done so, the court may have been moved to set aside the registrations, something that may well have resulted in throwing out the whole suit. In the absence of any contradictory evidence, the court allowed the registration certificates to stand.

This recent case serves as a good reminder that creators and businesses may want to revisit their habit of only registering copyrights, once an infringement problem occurs. A much better approach may be to register copyrights (over important works, at least) either as they are created or, at the very least, on a on-going basis, for example by doing a periodic sweep through the business’ most relevant and/or valuable creations, and registering copyrights thereon.

Copyright registration, in Canada, costs next to nothing and can be done through a process that requires minimal resources and information.

No Infringement Through Rehashing Facts Taken from a Book Marketed as True Crime

The Federal Court recently provided us with a note-worthy decision relating to copyrights, in Winkler c. Hendley (2021 FC 498). This judgment relates to infringement proceedings as to a recent book that was written in large part by taking facts from an other book written about 70 years ago and entitled The Black Donnellys.

The main issue dealt with in this case involved determining whether borrowing facts from another book may, under Canadian law, amount to infringement if, say, the resulting narrative is basically the same. Though we know the answer to the foregoing question is that YES, similarities may amount to infringement if the structure and organization of a 2nd work is sufficiently similar to the original (including the sequence of events, etc.), this only goes for works of fiction. Indeed, whenever dealing with works of fiction, courts will generally be somewhat more critical of attempts by third-parties to copy facts and sequences of events, potentially finding infringement even when there has been no literal copy of text.

On the other hand, works which relate scientific or historical facts, for example, are treated somewhat differently by Canadian courts when assessing copyright infringement. Indeed, for these types of works, courts are generally opposed to allowing the original author from claiming exclusivity to the facts (included in his/her work), even if he/she may have been the first to publish about them. After all, human knowledge is built on reusing and discussing scientific or historical facts, for example -something Canadian courts have recognized over the years. In short, any author who pens something spelling out what may be described as scientific or historical facts should generally forget about any hope of claiming these very facts as his/her exclusive property; they basically become part of the common collective -essentially becoming part of the public domain.

The recent Winkler decision which we’re discussing in this post dealt with a work that was published years ago and thereafter promoted as part of the “True crime” genre, because it purported to tell the actual story of an specific Ontario family’s tribulations, at a certain time and place. Indeed, for 70 years during which the book at issue remained in print, its author and the publisher maintained it reflected actual events that really occurred during the XIXth Century, etc.

However, once the holder of the copyrights to the original book realized another author had seized upon the story of the Donnellys, litigation ensued in the context of which it soon became clear the book at issue may not have been as factual as one might think given how it has been marketed and promoted. Indeed, it turns out The Black Donnellys was not entirely factual; a large part of the events and “facts” described in the book having been invented by the author.

This lead the Federal Court in the decision at issue to refuse to entertain the notion that a 2nd author may have infringed the copyrights to the original book, under the circumstances of this case. Even though it was essentially a work of fiction, the court refused to consider the content of the original book as we would factual or historical works. Here, given how the original book was willingly presented and marketed, for so long, it simply did not make sense to allow the holder of the copyrights to suddenly claim that this book was really a work of fiction and, thus, deserving broader protection.

In effect, the Federal Court held here that the objective truth of what is contained in a book is not determinative, when it comes to ascertaining whether we should consider that specific work as being factual or fiction. It may suffice that the author held his/her work as being fact, to be able to rely on this, so as to be allowed to liberally borrow facts and narrative from such a work of authorship.

No, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Reuse of Clips from a CBC Broadcast, in Online Ads, Held Fair Dealing

The Federal Court (la «F.C.») recently gave us a copyright decision worth mentioning in Canadian Broadcasting Corporation v. Conservative Party of Canada (2021 FC 425), a judgment that provides us with a rare interpretation and application of the exception relating to criticism.

As one may remember, the Copyright Act (the “Act”) contains a series of exceptions allowing reuse of copyrighted content to certain ends that fall under the category of what the act consider “Fair Dealing”. One of those (described in Section 29.1 of the Act) allows using works for purposes of criticism, a specific exception that the F.C. had the opportunity to interpret in the recent CBC case.

This decision stems from a lawsuit by the CBC against the Conservative Party of Canada (the “CPP”) further to the use of video segments from a political debate (originally aired by the CBC) in online advertising run in 2019, without permission from the CBC. According to the CPP, given that the goal of the political ads at issue was to criticize the Prime Minister, the use of portions of CBC broadcasts should be protected as fair dealing. Contrary to the usual attempt to invoke the exception at issue, the criticism in this case was not a criticism of the work being copied (the broadcast itself) but rather criticism of an individual shown on-screen and the ideas and views he expressed. So, the question stood: could such criticism qualify under Section 29.1 of the Act so as to protect the CPP from an infringement claim?

Upon examining the issue, the F.C. had to agree that the goal of the ads at issue was clearly to criticize the Prime-Minister and his views and decisions. Given this, the F.C. concludes we are indeed in a situation where copyrighted materials was used for purposes of criticism. Given the treatment of fair dealing by the Supreme Court of Canada (and others) over the past few years, such exceptions should be interpreted broadly, so as to balance adequately the rights of creators with those of users.

According to the F.C., the exception relating to criticism may of course extend to the works that are reproduced but may also apply in other cases, including criticism of ideas, values and anything that has been expressed in the works that were reused. In the case at hand, portions of political debates during which the Prime-Minister expressed certain views could thus be reused for purposes of criticizing him, his ideas and his handling of certain issues. At law, this was clearly criticism.

Doing so, the F.C. sets aside a common interpretation of Section 29.1 of the Act, namely that this exception was included in the Act to solely allow criticizing works, including for example by literary critics. On the contrary, according to the F.C., nothing in this provision of the Act restricts what the criticism at issue can relate to. The article at issue simply allows reuse for purposes of criticism, without specifying what the criticism must relate to.

After holding this was indeed a case of reuse for purposes of criticism, the court then applied the usual test to determine whether reuse of the materials at issue in this case has been “fair”, agreeing it has been. Given the fair dealing defense applied, the F.C. rejected the infringement proceedings against the C.P.C.

The F.C. decision at issue represents yet one more example of a trend, during the last few years, as courts gradually broaden the meaning of fair dealing exceptions under Canadian copyright law.