Desperate ploy, or copyright coup?

In the digital age, it is hard to imagine that personal photocopying still poses much of a worry for copyright owners. Isn’t the real problem, after all, the ability to make perfect copies and to share them instantly with thousands of others? Traditional photocopying poses neither of these dangers, and personal copying is a long settled fair use, isn’t it?

Not, apparently, for Access Copyright, the Canadian copyright licensing agency that, like its US counterpart the Copyright Clearance Center, collects and distributes permission fees for various uses of copyrighted material. Access Copyright has recently filed a lawsuit seeking 10 million dollars – the largest damages award ever sought for copyright infringement in Canada – from the office supply chain Staples. Their claim is that Staples should be liable for infringing copying done by customers on equipment provided by the stores. There is a news report on the suit from the Canadian Press here, a negative assessment from P2Pnet here, and a comment from a Canadian professor of IP and technology law here.

To prove secondary liability on the part of Staples, Access Copyright will have to convince a court that Staples should be held responsible for copying done by its customers. As Professor Geist points out, that may be a difficult hurdle to clear. In Canada, as in the US, liability for those who merely supply the equipment to make copies is rare; the US provides statutory protection for libraries in such cases and the Canadian Supreme Court has established a similar “presumption” in favor of Canadian libraries. Explaining why that presumption should not apply to Staples will be a challenge for this lawsuit.

But the issue that should really worry us, the issue that makes this a radial attempt to change the terms of the copyright bargain rather than merely a desperate ploy to protect a new source of revenue as traditional sources dry up, is that Access Copyright will have to show that the personal copying done by customers is direct infringement of copyright. Only if that is true can Staples be held secondarily liable for providing the means for that infringement. But personal copying has been almost universally believed to be fair use (or, in Canada, “fair dealing”). Students have made single copies of journal articles and book chapters for their own study for as long as photocopies have existed, and consumers have made personal copies of TV shows with their own VCRs with the blessing of the US Supreme Court. So what has changed?

The clue is in the fact that this suit was brought by a licensing agency, not by publishers or authors. What we are seeing here is a new assertion that personal copying was never legal, only tolerated by copyright owners until they could create a mechanism to collect payments. The same digital technologies that have allowed so much infringement also now allow content owners to efficiently offer licenses and collect payments for individual uses that could never have supported a market before. Although it is still more efficient to sue the alleged contributory infringer instead of the consumer who is the direct infringer, this saber rattling by a licensing agency should tell us quite clearly that content owners intend to move toward a pay-per-use model. If such suits are successful, every consumer-made copy logged at a store or even at a library photocopier could be subject to small payments, which would be administered through an online licensing agency.

At a recent conference in Washington, DC, Cary Sherman, the President of the Recording Industry Association of American, refused to acknowledge that personal copying of a music CD for listening on an individual MP3 player was fair use. Instead he said that this likely was infringement, but that the industry had agreed internally not to pursue such cases. The Canadian lawsuit suggests that, if a precedent can be set regarding the much less contested area of personal photocopying, any such forbearance around consumer copying will quickly become a thing of the past.

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