Copyright Law, Freedom of Expression and Canwest v. Horizon

By: John Magyar · June 26, 2009 · Filed Under Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Intellectual Property, Legal Reform, Media Law · Comments Off 

In a previous post I erroneously stated that the appeal of Canwest Mediaworks Publications v. Horizon Publications had been dropped.   As it turns out, the appeal is pending; the game is on.  Those who wish to know more should visit the Seriously Free Speech Committee website where there is a wealth of information including the trial court decision and the Notice of Appeal.  While browsing the site, I noticed that within some of the articles there are calls for Canwest to drop the suit.  Although I completely understand why the appellants would want to be freed from the onerous burden of legal action, I am hoping that the case proceeds for the benefit of society.

Copyright law occupies an unusual place in the legal landscape.  It is an extraordinarily complicated regime that affects our daily lives in hundreds of ways, yet it is rarely litigated.  There are only a handful of appellate court decisions pertaining to copyright law; opportunities to move the law in a positive direction are infrequent and questionable decisions like Michelin can linger for decades.

While many cases of infringement involve activities that could reasonably be described as unjust enrichment, the wording of the statute is such that a black letter interpretation renders a number of practices unlawful that are in fact beneficial to society and do not involve usurping the gains of a copyright-holder.  A prime example is the artistic practice of appropriation, i.e. using culturally recognized symbols (for which copyright usually subsists) to express a unique idea.   In the Michelin case, a cartoon was distributed to promote a union drive which depicted a large smiling “Michelin Man” about to trample on a Michelin factory worker.

Although appropriation is an old artistic technique, it is becoming much more common in our media-rich culture, and I would suggest that the growing importance of appropriation is a natural evolution in a society where we are constantly bombarded with images and sound bites.  No individual alive today created the English language.   We were “bombarded” with it when we grew up, and we appropriated the words and phrases as tools for our own expression.  This is a reasonable and indeed productive activity.   It is for this reason that copyright protection is not permitted for words and ideas; they are the building blocks of expression that are part of our cultural heritage and rightly belong in the public domain.

In a media-saturated society, the same elements are at work with the many images and sound bites that we are exposed to.   With the growing variety of tools to manipulate them, it is only natural that artists would incorporate some of these images and sound bites into their own unique works, and often as a means of social commentary.  This is what artists do.  They have never been satisfied with painting pretty pictures, but prefer to shine a harsh light on the society in which they live through the innovative use of symbols.  This is an important part of the social dialogue and free exchange of ideas that underpin our culturally rich society.

The law of copyright, in its current form, depends upon the concepts of originality and substantiality to protect the building blocks of expression, and therefore only permits appropriation that is not substantial (with narrow exceptions for fair dealing as explained by David Fewer — thank you for your comment).  This test is too simple to ‘get it right’.  As a result, it has the incidental effect of stifling the vast majority of appropriative forms of artistic expression and social commentary, regardless of the social import and regardless of how creative a work is.

There can be no doubt that copyright law protects legitimate interests, and it must continue to do so.  However, I respectfully submit that the current statute, as applied by the courts, does not adequately serve the dual objectives of “promoting the public interest in the encouragement and dissemination of works of the arts and intellect and obtaining a just reward for the creator” (Théberge v. Galerie d’Art du Petit Champlain inc., [2002] 2 S.C.R. 336, 2002 SCC 34 at para 30.).   To the contrary, the law actually discourages the creation and distribution of new works.

In a society where copyright cases are rarely litigated, the Canwest case is an invaluable opportunity.  It is my hope (and apparently I am not alone) that the Canwest case results in a more nuanced enunciation of copyright law in Canada: one that allows appropriation in circumstances where it does not interfere with the legitimate interests of a copyright holder.

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