The Supreme Court of Canada ruled on March 4 that photocopying published materials for personal research use is protected under "fair dealing" provisions of the Copyright Act.
CCH Canadian Limited, Canada Law Book Inc. and Carswell Thomson Professional Publishing filed suit in 1993 claiming the Law Society of Upper Canada's photocopying service infringed their copyrights. The society provides users of its Toronto library with single copies of extracts from its collection of legal resources, some of which were published by the three publishers. The lower courts agreed with the publishers.
But the Supreme Court reversed the decisions, holding that the society's dealings with the publishers' works through its custom photocopy service were "research-based and fair." The court stated, "'Research' must be given a large and liberal interpretation in order to ensure that users' rights are not unduly constrained."
Chris Dennis, chair of CAUT's Librarians' Committee, hailed the landmark decision "positive" for users.
"It was two strikes against the Law Society. But at the end of the day it was the Supreme Court's focus on balance that decided the case. The court has recently stressed that balance is at the core of the Copyright Act, with owner rights and user rights being equally important."
The court held that fair dealing exceptions in copyright law served a broad public good and should not be interpreted restrictively.
"This is an important statement that the flow of information in Canada is governed by more than commercial considerations," Dennis said. "The court has said the purpose of copyright is not simply to maximize the profits of publishers but also to ensure the public has reasonable access to works, including the right to copy without permission in certain situations. It's an affirmation of the ethos of librarians and scholars who put the dissemination of knowledge ahead of private gain."
Dennis notes the decision does not automatically constitute a license to copy at will.
"One of the reasons the Law Society won was because it was very careful in what it copied for patrons. It is not open season at the photocopier. Fair dealing is limited to a single copy of what in most circumstances will be a portion of a work and the use of the work must be for the purpose of research, private study, criticism, review or news reporting."
He also warns the battle to defend the balance between the users and owners of copyright works is not over.
"The big publishers will be very unhappy with the decision and you can bet they will exert enormous pressure on Parliament to take balance out of the Copyright Act. The academic community has to get in there and fight to preserve an Act that looks out for all Canadians."
A copy of the Supreme Court's decision is available online at www.canlii.org.