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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 1999

A Dangerous New Era - Copyright in the Digital Age

People's eyes glaze over when they hear the word 'copyright'," says CAUT executive committee member Ken Field. "But this is important stuff."

How important? According to Field, we are entering a dangerous new era: "The worst case scenario is that scholarly material will be removed from the public domain, locked up in electronic form, and be available only on a pay per use basis. The days of pulling a reference book from a library shelf to do basic research could be over."

To fend off this nightmare of capitalism run amok, Field is spearheading the CAUT endeavor to maintain the traditional balance between the owners and users of copyright material in the digital age. The concept of "fair dealing" (the right to copy a portion of a work for educational, research or private personal use without the consent of the copyright owner) is central to this effort.

CAUT is a member of the Copyright Coalition, a group of like-minded organizations, to ensure the public interest in an "information common" is not subsumed by the forces of private greed. The task will not be an easy one says Field. "Marshaling something as nebulous as 'public interest' against profit-hungry media conglomerates is a daunting challenge, but opposition is growing."

Indeed, the struggle against the privatization of knowledge appears to have scored an early success. In January of this year the federal government released draft regulations on "fair dealing" at libraries and educational institutions. The government heeded the Copyright Coalition's urging that these regulations take the least restrictive form possible.

The coalition is now turning its attention to the role of copyright in the digital age. Officials in Industry Canada and Heritage Canada indicate that a discussion paper charting the general direction of government policy is to be released in the fall and that a process of consultation with "stakeholders" will follow.

Among the top priorities for the coalition in this process will be ensuring the "fair-dealing" doctrine is extended to works in digital form and the creation of new proprietary rights for electronic databases are resisted.

Field is particularly concerned about the database issue. Recent court decisions in Canada and the United States have rejected the extension of copyright protection to databases that are mere compilations of facts. As a result, powerful interests are clamouring for legislation that will extend the right that courts have declined to provide.

Should this legislation proceed, what was once mere facts in the public domain will become, through inclusion in a protected database, private property that is accessible only for a price.

"Your eyes might glaze over now when you hear the word copyright," concludes Field, "but if we can't preserve the 'information commons' those same eyes will pop right out of your head when you get the bill for material that once was available free."