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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 1998

Yikes! A Primer on Copyright

Think of a writer huddled in an unheated apartment. By candlelight she is putting the finishing touches to a manuscript. Her work is brilliant. It has the potential to bring her fame and fortune -- unless someone floods the market with an unauthorized version. Still, the writer is at peace. She knows that copyright, the legal right of an author to control the use of his or her work, will ensure that she benefits from her efforts.

Is this What Copyright is About?
Yes, but only in part. Copyright also deals with the interests of the users and owners of creative works. Ownership is a critical point. The creator and owner of the work are often different, and it is the owner who derives the bulk of copyright's benefit. In a broader sense, copyright is the body of law that governs the ownership, reproduction and distribution of artistic, literary and scientific works.

This law is said to balance the needs of creators, users and owners. Users need access to creative works. Creators and owners require recognition, financial remuneration and control to justify producing new material. If the balance between these parties is upset, the public interest suffers. Weak copyright protection can undermine the incentive of creators to produce new works. At the other extreme, copyright law that is too rigid hinders access to knowledge.

Copyright is set out in a complex array of international treaties and conventions, and in Canada falls under federal jurisdiction. The governing statute is the Copyright Act. In recent years this Act has undergone substantial revision in response to changes in international law and to developments in communication technology.

Copyright Reform
Phase I, which strengthened the rights of creators and owners, was completed in 1988. Phase II, originally intended to provide similar guarantees to users, concluded this last year. CAUT was a active participant in both phases. Phase III is scheduled to start in 1999. This phase will deal with copyright and electronic communication.

Copyright law has always allowed for "fair dealing" or "fair use." Under this doctrine, some creative work may be copied, without the consent of the copyright owner, for educational, research or private personal use. Phase II was originally envisaged as the opportunity for broad "fair dealing" exceptions to be written into the Copyright Act. Unfortunately, Phase II only resulted in very narrow "fair dealing" exceptions.

As a result, academics face a tightening web of restrictions on their use of scholarly material. In addition, educational institutions are paying enormous sums in licensing fees to the owners of copyright. If this simply meant that creators received just compensation for their efforts, this might not be a problem. However, the traditional creator/user dichotomy is not a complete analytical model of copyright in the late 20th century. In the university setting, for example, much of the material used in instruction and research is created by academics for academics, but the copyright is handed over to journal publishers as a condition of publication. As a result, stricter copyright laws do not benefit creators or increase accessibility to knowledge, but serve to divert public money to private publishing companies.

As Phase III of the reform process nears, CAUT is preparing to argue again for a legislative balance among the interests of creators, users and owners. During Phase II, CAUT established informal alliances with groups that shared our concerns, such as the Canadian Library Association. These alliances are now being solidified into a formal coalition. Increased awareness among faculty members of copyright issues will ensure that a broad range of voices will be heard as Phase III commences and copyright law is adapted to the digital age.

This article was supplied by the CAUT Copyright Group to promote understanding on the subject of copyright.