The Mickey Mouse Copyright Extension Myth: A Convenient “Straw Man” to Attack

The Walt Disney Company has delighted generations of children and adults with its style of wholesome family entertainment, whether it’s movies, cartoons, games or theme parks. That’s the Disney brand. Disney has generally managed to steer clear of political controversies and stay safely in the middle ground, very much in the mainstream. Like any global corporation, Disney needs to satisfy a range of stakeholders, the most important of whom are its customers, but also including, of course, shareholders, employees and regulatory authorities. Disney has managed to navigate these sometimes-conflicting demands pretty well. After all, it has successfully established theme parks in places as varied, in terms of political environment and regulatory expectations, as Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Not to mention California and Orlando, FL. Actually, Florida might be the most challenging regulatory environment in which it operates.

At the current time, Disney is being targeted by some state and federal Republican officials because they feel Disney is not on-board with current Florida legislation, “The Parental Rights in Education Bill” (aka “Don’t Say Gay” bill). If adopted, it will prevent discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity instruction in Florida classrooms from kindergarten through Grade 3. Disney would no doubt prefer to avoid wading into a controversial issue like this unrelated to its business, but the unhappiness of some Disney employees over its initial low profile led to the company to take a corporate position—against the bill.

It is not my intention to step into the minefield of Florida, or gender identity, politics. Disney is more than capable of defending itself and explaining its corporate positions. Rather I want to highlight the ludicrous position taken by some Disney political critics to try to punish the company by attacking it on the basis of its copyright holdings. Two Republican members of Congress, Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio have threatened to block any extension of Disney’s copyright on Mickey Mouse.

That might be a real threat or a punishment if Disney was actually seeking to extend the term of protection of US copyright law, which of course would apply to everyone, not just Disney. But there has been no suggestion that they are. Nor is anyone else trying to achieve this as far as I can tell. Banks has written to Disney’s CEO opposing any extension to Disney’s copyrights–extensions that Disney has not asked for. This must be the straw man of all straw men.

The latest development is that Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), in a publicity stunt designed to “punish” Disney has introduced legislation, “The Copyright Clause Restoration Act” (S-4178), that would specifically target The Walt Disney Company by rolling back existing copyright protection on its works along with drastically shortening the term of copyright protection for all other rights-holders going forward. Apart from being an unconstitutional expropriation of property, the Bill would put the United States in violation of commitments made in a number of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, notably the conditions of its accession to the Berne Convention. The retroactive and expropriatory element of the Bill is worded so that it applies to any entertainment company or movie studio with a market capitalization above $150 billion, without specifically naming Disney. Disney, however, is clearly the target as the only primarily content company with copyright assets covered by the designated industry classification categories named in the Bill—unless its market cap suddenly plummets. This is too cute by half. Hawley may as well have said that the legislation applies to any company that owns the IP in an anthropomorphic mouse that whistles. (It appears, however, that NBC Universal may also be captured because of its ownership by Comcast and Amazon’s just-concluded acquisition of MGM could also possibly subject the copyright holdings of this studio to retroactive expropriation–except that it won’t happen). Hawley’s draft legislation is bad law and terrible public policy. It will go nowhere because Congress is not going to change the law to target just one company and retroactively expropriate its assets just because one Senator happens not to like it. Apart from the legal challenges this would entail, the move reeks of political gamesmanship. In short, the whole thing is plain “Goofy”.  

Banks and Jordan, and now Hawley, have dredged up the issue as a stick with which to beat Disney because copyright protection on the first Mickey Mouse cartoon ever produced, Steamboat Willie, which came out in 1928, will expire in the US on January 1, 2024. On that date the first black and white sound cartoon in which a very different looking Mickey from the one today, a Mickey who whistles but does not speak, will fall into the public domain. But Disney will retain copyright over all iterations of Mickey beyond this early cinematographic work and furthermore holds trademark rights over all uses of Mickey on a full range of products and merchandise, in perpetuity as long as the marks are used and renewed. Not only that, this is not just about Mickey; the copyright on a lot of other works will also expire on the same day. This is a regular occurrence, a fact that anti-copyright crusaders try to exploit each year by proclaiming “Public Domain Day”. This is just a publicity stunt to promote an anti-copyright agenda, suggesting that works under copyright protection have been locked away from the public for decades, and are now suddenly liberated. This is nonsense. As I wrote earlier this year when A.A. Milne’s work “Winnie the Pooh” entered the public domain in the US (“Winnie the Pooh, the Public Domain and Winnie’s Canadian Connection”),;

Those who go to inordinate lengths to “celebrate” a work going into the public domain help feed the false narrative that a work under copyright is one that is “locked up” and unavailable to the public. The Center (for the Study of the Public Domain, at Duke University) notes that works falling into the public domain are “free for all to copy, share, and build upon”. That’s true, but a work under copyright is also available for all these purposes through licensing, and/or fair dealing/fair use exceptions.”

Milne’s work has been in the public domain in Canada since 2007, but I have yet to see an explosion of derivative works simply because Pooh is not in copyright there. In Canada, the term is life of the author plus 50 years although that is about to be extended to “life plus 70” to match the term for the EU, Australia, Japan and many other countries as well as for newer works in the United States. Because of the history of copyright legislation in the US, where there were different (renewable) terms at different times in the past, when Congress updated US copyright law in 1976 it provided a period of protection for older works of 75 years from the date of the publication of the work, rather than tying the term to the lifespan of the author. For works published after January 1, 1978, a term of “life plus 50” was legislated. In 1998, the “life plus 50” term was extended by twenty years to bring the US copyright term into alignment with that of the EU, whose term had become “life plus 70”. At the same time Congress also extended the period of 75 years from publication for older works by 20 years to 95 years.

At that time, Steamboat Willie’s 75 year copyright term was nearing expiration, leading to a campaign by those opposed to term extension to identify the US Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (aka the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, named after Congressman Bono, who had recently died in a skiing accident), as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”. While unfair and misleading, the label was used to mobilize anti-copyright elements to try to paint the legislation as a gift to one company. Although Disney as a major copyright stakeholder actively promoted extension, as did many other companies, associations and groups with copyright interests, the main motivation for the US legislation was to enable US rights-holders to access the additional twenty years of copyright protection offered by the countries of the European Union. As copyright blogger and retired senior music industry executive Neil Turkewitz pointed out in a posting a couple of years ago, the US Supreme Court, in dismissing a challenge (Eldred v Ashcroft) against the term extension law stated;

By extending the baseline United States copyright term to life plus 70 years, Congress sought to ensure that American authors would receive the same copyright protection in Europe as their European counterparts.”

The EU has a provision known as “the rule of the shorter term” whereby EU member states will not provide the full “life plus 70” term of protection to authors from other countries unless EU rights-holders are given equivalent protection. In other words, the EU applies the principle of reciprocity to the extended term, as is its right under the Berne Convention. To avoid unfavourable discriminatory treatment against US rights-holders in the EU, the United States needed to provide the same level of protection to EU rights-holders as those rights-holders enjoyed in the EU by extending its term, a provision that would of course be applicable to domestic rights-holders as well.

Back in 1993 the EU implemented an extended term of “life plus 70” through its Copyright Directive–applicable to all members–primarily in order to harmonize the term of protection among member states, which were of varying lengths. For example, Germany had a term of “life plus 70” whereas Italy was “life plus 56” resulting in confusion about what works were protected by copyright within the Union. One of a number of stated reasons for extending the term of protection was that originally the “life plus 50” standard incorporated into the Berne Convention of 1886 was intended to protect works for two generations after the demise of the author. With longer life spans in the last decade of the 20th century, a period of 70 years was now required to provide the equivalent level of protection. This was one justification and there were others, but the prime motivation was to level up the level of protection across all the member states. While internal consistency was the major factor for the EU, the result was that other countries not meeting the EU standard would find their rights-holders at a disadvantage in the EU market.

Once it had extended its term across all member states, the EU adopted reciprocity (or the rule of the shorter term) to encourage other countries to give equivalent protection to EU rights-holders abroad. In the case of the US, it worked. When Congress passed the Term Extension Act in 1998, Disney was a beneficiary along with any other rights-holder whose work had not yet entered the public domain in the US. While some countries have longer terms of protection than the United States or the EU (Mexico for example has a term of copyright protection “life plus 100”—maybe people live longer in Mexico), there is no push in the US or EU for extending the present term of copyright (although there are some who argue that copyright is a property right and like other property rights should last in perpetuity). Today the focus is on encouraging those countries where the term of protection is only “life plus 50” (like Canada and New Zealand) to align their terms of protection with that of most other developed nations. Both countries have committed to doing so as a result of trade agreement commitments, a move that will have the additional benefit of securing longer protection for their rights-holders in the EU, just as American rights-holders benefited once Congress adopted the Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998.

Given the background to US copyright extension twenty-five years ago, and the current state of US copyright law, it is frankly laughable to suggest that a movement to further extend the term of copyright protection in the United States will suddenly emerge, driven by the Walt Disney Company or anyone else. If there is no such movement, there is no need to publicly oppose it. And it is equally ridiculous to try to take US copyright law back in time to the provisions of the Copyright Act of 1909, as Hawley’s bill would do. This is all about political grandstanding, but that grandstanding would have a lot more credibility if it was based on facts—and sound legal principles– rather than a myth.

© Hugh Stephens 2022. All Rights Reserved.  

The “Declaration for the Future of the Internet”: What Does it Mean for Copyright Industries?

On April 28, with little advance notice, an announcement was released by various governments informing the world that they had just signed a Declaration for the Future of the Internet”. In all, sixty-one countries signed this grandiose-sounding document, ranging from Albania to Uruguay. Signatories notably included the US, which was the sponsor of the Declaration, the 27 countries of the EU, the UK, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and four of the five Nordic countries. These constitute what one might loosely consider the “western alliance”, but signatories also included several countries in Latin America, a couple of African states, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, Israel and even Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands. Notably absent were not only Russia and China, against whom the Declaration appears to be aimed, and a number of states where control of the internet is part of the control mechanisms exercised by those regimes (think Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the Gulf States—in fact no government in the Middle East save Israel signed on), but also some states one would have thought might have joined, such as Norway, India, South Korea, Switzerland or any of the ASEAN states. Indeed, except for Japan and Taiwan, there were no signatories from Asia.

The Declaration has been percolating below the surface in Washington for a few months and was almost rushed into existence last December in the form of an “Alliance for the Future of the Internet”, associated with President Biden’s virtual “Summit for Democracy” held December 9-10. At the time there was strong pushback from various quarters, not the least because of a lack of public consultation with stakeholders plus a concern that it would lead to a splitting of the internet by creating at least two camps, those in the “Alliance” and those not. For example, one stipulation in earlier drafts was that signatories should only use equipment from “trustworthy suppliers”. (meaning, in effect, not from Huawei). In the end, the Alliance was not unveiled at the Summit as it was clearly not ready for prime time. Now, reworked, it has emerged as a non-binding declaration.

So what does it do, what does it not do, and what impact will it have on creators and the content industries who are, after all, major stakeholders when it comes to the internet and digital trade? First of all, while it sets out a number of broad principles considered to be desirable for the governance of the internet, it creates no obligations and has no implementation or enforcement mechanism. The principles are hard to argue with; indeed, they are generally laudable, although “freedom” always has to be balanced with responsibility, of which there is little mention. On its website, the US Department of State indicates that the key principles include commitments to;

  • “Protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people;
  • Promote a global Internet that advances the free flow of information;
  • Advance inclusive and affordable connectivity so that all people can benefit from the digital economy;
  • Promote trust in the global digital ecosystem, including through protection of privacy; and
  • Protect and strengthen the multi-stakeholder approach to governance that keeps the Internet running for the benefit of all.”

The EU’s interpretation of the Declaration adds “contestability of online platforms, and…fair competition among businesses.” By “contestability” (a strange word drawn from the Declaration itself) I assume the press release is referring to competition between online platforms. (An astute reader has clarified the term contestability for me–see below). Canada proclaimed that the Declaration expresses its objectives for an internet that is “open, trusted, interoperable and secure” that “fosters democratic values and respect for human rights.” The phrase “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure” is a kind of buzzword that appears repeatedly throughout the document. I am sure that other signatories also issued their own statements interpreting the significance of the Declaration. In fact, it is so broad that just about everyone can find something in it to support, except perhaps the countries against whom it is primarily aimed, notably Russia and China. This statement, for example, is surely aimed at Russian political interference in the last US presidential election.

Signatories agree to;

Refrain from using the Internet to undermine the electoral infrastructure, elections and political processes, including through covert information manipulation campaigns.”

Likewise, against whom other than China could this commitment be directed?

Signatories agree to;

Refrain from misusing or abusing the Internet or algorithmic tools or techniques for unlawful surveillance, oppression, and repression that do not align with international human rights principles, including developing social score cards or other mechanisms of domestic social control or pre-crime detention and arrest.”

The Declaration even enlists the internet in the fight against global climate change.

That is what it does. What it does not do is directly address the important issue of platform accountability although there is a tangential reference to the fact that “the once decentralized Internet economy has become highly concentrated and many people have legitimate concerns about their privacy and the quantity and security of personal data collected and stored online. Online platforms have enabled an increase in the spread of illegal or harmful content that can threaten the safety of individuals and contribute to radicalization and violence.” “Freedom of expression” and the “free flow of information” are not absolutes even in the most democratic of societies. Reasonable limits to curb defamation, online bullying, hate speech, incitement of violence and other abuses, including disinformation and misinformation are also part of the democratic social contract, but the Declaration just skips over these nuances in laying out its principles. I realize it can be a fine line between legal constraints in a democratic society and the abuse of these constraints by autocratic regimes, but it is not impossible to find language that conveys these distinctions.

Fortunately, what the Declaration also does not do is include any reference to Section 230-like language, such as was included in the US-Japan Digital Trade Agreement or the new NAFTA (USMCA). These agreements tried to immunize platforms from civil liability for content hosted (and sometimes promoted by them) on their platforms by including terminology that required an interactive computer service (i.e. digital platform) to not be treated as an information content provider in determining liability for harms. In other words, platforms could duck any responsibility for third-party content they carry and promote. (Both Canada and Japan did an end-run around this provision by inserting a caveat that allowed them to implement this commitment through existing legal doctrines applied through judicial decisions, thus preserving secondary liability.)

While the lack of any reference to platform immunity is a positive, unfortunately the Declaration also fails to pro-actively affirm the rights of creators in the digital realm, and contains some language that could be considered problematic from the perspective of copyright-holders. The internet has proven to be both a boon as well as a major challenge to copyright industries and creators. While there is lip service to creators in the document, with the Declaration noting that the internet brings new audiences to artists and creators, it then goes on to talk about “unfettered” access to knowledge for “everyone”. I am not sure of the intent of this wording, but it could be misused by anti-copyright elements to oppose legitimate licensing requirements for access to copyrighted content.

Another concern arises in the section of the Declaration dealing with “A Global Internet”, where there is a reference to net neutrality that needs to be carefully interpreted.

Signatories should;

Refrain from blocking or degrading access to lawful content, services, and applications on the Internet, consistent with principles of Net Neutrality subject to applicable law, including international human rights law.”

Again, there is a risk that this language could be misused by opponents of site blocking or other measures taken to combat digital piracy and unauthorized transmissions. Net neutrality has been trotted out in the past by anti-copyright elements as a reason to oppose site blocking. However, I take some comfort in inclusion of the adjective “lawful” in the commitment. Site blocking as a means to fight online piracy has been instituted in a number of countries that are signatory to the Declaration. This is done either through a judicial or quasi-judicial process or a transparent administrative mechanism, and has no impact on transmission of lawful content, nor does it interfere with net neutrality.

Finally, there is one other reference in the Declaration that may provide some comfort to digital content producers. It references malware and scams, often distributed through pirated content.

Signatories will:

“Promote the protection of consumers, in particular vulnerable consumers, from online scams and other unfair practices online and from dangerous and unsafe products sold online”

Many of these scam artists access consumers, including vulnerable consumers, through Trojan Horses inserted into pirated content, as I wrote about a few years ago. (“The Year of the RAT-Beware”). Legitimate content is the antidote.

At the end of the day, there are some scraps in this document for creators, but not many. It is clear that there was little consultation with a group that is among the prime users of the internet and is a prime stakeholder in its governance. As a statement of general principles, the Declaration is unlikely to do much harm, or frankly, much good. No-one can argue with basic human rights, freedom of expression—within reasonable limits, protection of privacy, and equality of access to the internet. How these lofty goals will be achieved in practice is another question.

It would have been preferable to have had a more inclusive document that better reflected the interests of stakeholders, including the content industries, but the intent seemed to be to get a statement of principles “out there” as quickly as possible. With no concrete action plan or any firm commitments attached to it, it may simply be a bit of window-dressing that is easy for countries to commit to, an internet “vision statement” as it were. It is too bad that vision did not include more specific references to the interests of the creators and content industries that produce the digital content that makes the internet the “go to” forum for most of the world’s connected population.

© Hugh Stephens, 2022. All Rights Reserved.

This blog has been updated to clarify the meaning of the term “contestability” in the 4th paragraph. With thanks to Simon Carne.

The Anti-Copyright Hyperbole Fails to Sway the Canadian Government

Credit: Author

Call it a victory for common sense. The Canadian Budget Implementation Bill, which includes needed amendments to the Copyright Act to implement Canada’s CUSMA treaty commitment to extend its term of copyright protection to bring it into alignment with its major trading partners, has now been tabled. The legislation takes the sensible and straightforward approach of amending the duration of copyright protection in Canada from life of the author plus 50 years (“life plus 50”) to “life plus 70” without the interposition of new and burdensome registration requirements called for by copyright opponents. The new term will apply to all works under copyright at the time of proclamation of the legislation which, according to the terms of the CUSMA, must take place before the end of 2022.

In the lead up to the tabling of the bill, we have been inundated with tendentious and misleading information from many of the usual suspects about the supposed harm of extending Canada’s duration of copyright protection. The anti-copyright hyberbole machine has been in overdrive. As much as I am tempted to ignore this flood of verbiage since the sensible decision has now been taken by the government—and lest I give the attacks on copyright greater credibility that they deserve– I cannot resist the opportunity to present an alternate view.

Recall that in the CUSMA (aka the USMCA), the new NAFTA 2.0 agreement that went into effect on July 1, 2020 Canada agreed, as part of the overall CUSMA package, to extend its term of copyright protection to “life plus 70”, the same term that is in effect in the United States, the EU, the UK, Japan, Australia—more than 80 countries around the world. It is a revision to the “life plus 50” minimum established by the major international copyright treaty, the Berne Convention, to which both Canada and the US belong. Canada agreed to take this action no later than 2.5 years from the entry into force of CUSMA, which was July 1, 2020. There is thus a degree of urgency to get this piece of legislative homework completed before the end of the year, which no doubt explains why the necessary Copyright Act amendments have been appended to the 2022 omnibus budget bill. The budget must pass or the government will fall, and with the “confidence and supply” agreement signed between the NDP and the Liberals, it is virtually guaranteed that the budget implementation bill will be approved by Parliament. The Copyright Act amendments will go along for the ride.

So, if copyright term extension is going to happen, why all the fuss? University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist has been leading a campaign to try to convince the government to insert a major road-bump in the way of copyright extension implementation. He has advocated for the imposition of a copyright renewal registration requirement once the initial term of “life plus 50” expires, a move that no other country has ever undertaken. And for good reason. To require rights-holders to register their copyright in order to access the full term of protection to which they are entitled would mean establishing a bureaucratic process for registration and maintaining a registry of copyright renewal, putting the onus on users to try to determine if a work had been renewed (and was still protected by copyright) or not. It would also put a burden on rights-holders to renew within the short window when the Berne Convention minimum term of “life plus 50” approaches expiration. It is a “really bad idea” as I wrote a couple of weeks ago. No doubt major corporations would have the resources to do this, but many individual rights-holders (such as the estates of deceased authors) would likely fail to take the requisite action in the required time-window.

Apart from the regulatory burden, it is very likely that imposition of a registration requirement would be a violation of Canada’s commitments under the Berne Convention. It is a cardinal principle of Berne, dating back to the original iteration of the Convention in 1886, that copyright be conferred without any formalities of registration provided that a work meets other requirements establishing copyright. To try to convince the government to take a counter-intuitive action by instituting a copyright renewal registration requirement that would not only contravene Berne, but which would result in making it as difficult as possible for rights-holders to access the benefits of a provision agreed to in a bilateral trade treaty, Prof. Geist has trotted out arguments old and new against term extension.  

In one recent blog, we are given lists of public figures whose works will remain under copyright protection for an additional twenty years when the extension goes through. “Historians will lose public domain access to the works and papers some of Canada’s most notable leaders and figures of modern times, including leading Prime Ministers, Premiers, First Nations leaders, and Supreme Court justices,” he says. He rightly notes that these people (the list includes Joey Smallwood, John Diefenbaker, Tommy Douglas and a number of others), helped shape a nation. All true. But then he adds, “To withhold their works from the public domain for decades represents an enormous collective loss to our culture and heritage.”

What? Haven’t their papers been available to researchers for years? Haven’t multiple books and studies been written about these personalities? I did a quick internet search on just Smallwood and Diefenbaker and came up with more than a dozen works on each, including autobiographies. Has the fact that their writings have been subject to copyright protection prevented research and publication of subsequent works about their careers? It doesn’t seem so. The entire argument is based on the false premise that a work not in the public domain is a work not accessible to researchers, the public, libraries or anyone else. In fact, the existence of copyright provides the incentive to produce the works in the first place, and in many instances to incentivize reprints. Geist propounds the same fallacious argument with respect to Canadian authors. He provides a list of “Canadian authors and scholars whose work will be lost for a generation”. This list includes Margaret Lawrence, Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, Gabrielle Roy and so on. How will their works “be lost”? I am scratching my head.

The only parties to whom these works will be “lost” will be the republishers, publication houses that specialize in printing public domain works. One such entity is Broadview Press, quoted by Dr. Geist in one of his blogs, and a consistent opponent of extending the term of copyright protection in Canada. Why? Because Broadview has made a business of reprinting books that are still under copyright protection in other countries, such as its Canadian edition of the Great Gatsby, and selling them in Canada in competition with “authorized” editions. There is nothing wrong with that but let’s be clear as to motivations. I wrote about Broadview’s opposition to copyright term extension back in 2020. Copyright Term Extension in Canada and the Interesting Case of Broadview Press: Is it “Playing the Victim” or Just “Playing the Game”? Because Canada has a shorter term of protection, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work fell into the public domain in Canada before it did in the US. Broadview either did not want to pay for the rights to reproduce the work, or perhaps was not able to licence the work from the Fitzgerald estate, and so it produced its own Canadian edition in 2007. (This edition was copyrighted, by the way, in the name of its editor, Michael Nowlin). This edition could not be sold in the United States until Fitzgerald’s works entered the public domain in that country on January 1, 2021.

I will concede that an extended term of copyright protection does not favour the business model of publishing houses that specialize in printing well known works once they enter the public domain, but I would argue that this does no harm to the public interest. Public domain works are in many cases no cheaper than comparable works still under copyright protection. While publishers of public domain works don’t have to acquire the rights to reprint a work, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have costs to cover. What is not paid to license a work can be added to their margin, as long as the book price remains reasonably competitive. The return provided to a rights-holder by copyright protection is just as likely to incentivize the printing of new editions as the free ride for some publishers from a book entering the public domain.

Numerous studies have been conducted on the impact of copyright term extension on public welfare. At best, the results are inconclusive. Dr. Geist has repeatedly quoted a report published in New Zealand in 2009 that purported to show that if New Zealand extended its term of protection by an additional twenty years, it would cost the New Zealand economy NZ$55million annually in lost economic welfare as royalties were sent out of the country as payments to foreign rights-holders. However, that report was based on erroneous calculations and has been convincingly debunked. It should be buried once and for all. The economist who reviewed the faulty study done for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (the study is no longer available on the MFAT website) concluded that rather than a net welfare loss, the New Zealand economy could gain by as much as NZ$150 million per year if its term was extended. Extending copyright in Canada will bring extra protection, and revenue, for Canadian rights-holders from sales of their works abroad.

Moreover, models that focus exclusively on consumer costs ignore the economic benefits to creators and the overall beneficial impact on the economy. For example, a study Michael Geist likes to quote is a 2013 paper produced by Professor Paul Heald, an economist at the University of Illinois. Geist says that Heald concludes that copyright term extension is a “tax on consumers”. I actually read Heald’s paper and could not find that reference. However, Heald does talk about the retail price of books and concludes that in some instances (i.e. “the top twenty most popular public domain and copyrighted books from 1912-32 under several different measures”), books in the public domain are cheaper than books covered by copyright. But he also says, and I quote, “Buccafusco and Heald (2013) also found that the overall price of thousands of copyrighted and public domain books in a random sample of new Amazon books were the same… In summary, much empirical work remains to be done to test various claims about the costs and benefits of a work falling into the public domain.”

I may be cherry-picking (and I am not the only one!) but this is hardly conclusive evidence that term extension is a tax on consumers. Even if some books that are copyright protected have a higher retail price, this does not mean that this is an unfair “tax” on consumers. The added cost presumably represents the royalty paid to the author. The lowest price is not necessarily the optimal price from the perspective of the economy. I have used the example of recycling fees to make this point. A product in a container attracting no recycling fee would be cheaper for the consumer than a product in a recyclable container. But is the lowest price the optimal price? The recycling fee is not a tax and has a defined purpose. The same principle applies to the royalties or licence fees paid to authors and rights-holders for copyrighted works.

So where does all this leave us? He said, she said? Maybe. But what it proves to me is that there is an academic debate about the impact of the public domain on costs and availability of works. Different studies have produced different results. However, to suggest that works not falling immediately into the public domain will be “lost for a generation” is, as the British would say, “bollocks”. The “sky is falling” hyperbole about taxing consumers and locking away works just doesn’t stand up to the light of day. This misinformation was trundled out to try to convince the Canadian government to impose an irrational and unworkable registration requirement when implementing its copyright extension commitment. It didn’t work. In a final frenzied blog post published after the contents of the Copyright Act amendments were made public, Dr. Geist says “Make no mistake: the decision to implement copyright term extension without mitigation measures is the government’s choice.” He is right. Canada is fortunate that the Government of Canada made the commonsense choice of bringing its term of copyright protection into line with that of its major trading partners by simply extending the term, as everyone else to date has done.

© Hugh Stephens 2022. All Rights Reserved.

World IP Day: IP and Youth-Innovating for a Better Future (Kidovate as an Example)

Photo Credit: Brock Smith

This year the theme of World Intellectual Property (IP) Day, April 26, is “IP and Youth: Innovating for a Better Future”. As the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) puts it;

“Across the globe, young people are stepping up to innovation challenges, using their energy and ingenuity, their curiosity and creativity to steer a course towards a better future.”

How true. Creativity can come at any age. The New England Journal of Medicine has recently published a study showing that peak human intellectual activity occurs around the age of 70 when the brain begins to function at full strength, because at this age the interaction of the right and left hemispheres of the brain becomes harmonious, expanding creative possibilities. That’s good to know and perhaps helps explain why so many seniors take up new crafts, make music, learn to play musical instruments, write books, and become artists in later life. But at the same time, the creativity of youth has amazing potential.

This was brought home to me in spades by an event mounted by and for young entrepreneurs (and I mean young, between the ages of 9 and 14—middle school and junior high school students) a couple of weeks ago close to home, Victoria BC, sponsored by the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria (UVic). The idea is not unique to Victoria or UVic. Since 2007 the Acton Academies, based in Austin, TX, have been organizing Children’s Business Fairs. Acton Academies now exist around the world. According to the Children’s Business Fair website, over 1000 events involving over 50,000 young entrepreneurs have been held in 341 cities in 16 different countries. It sounds like a great program. If interested, you can get more information on their website to organize a children’s business fair in your own community.

I am sure that the creative output in these events around the world matches the imagination and innovation that I observed at UVic’s young entrepreneurs’ fair, called Kidovate. According to the Victoria Times Colonist, Kidovate was launched in 2019 to introduce young people to the basics of being an entrepreneur. Students follow a graphic workbook created by UVic entrepreneurship professor Brock Smith that provides a step-by-step guide on how to set up a venture. If they wish, the students can arrange for a student mentor from the School of Business. Dr. Smith told me that UVic has even prepared a teaching module integrated with the Department of Education curriculum that middle and high school teachers can use to engage their students. Students learn about pricing, financing, marketing, customer service, record-keeping, innovation and regulation. Kidovate helps the young entrepreneurs obtain one day business licenses from the City for Kidovate Market Day (the $100 registration fee is waived). Students themselves merchandise their products, organize business cards and signage, and in some cases will take orders for later delivery.

But what about innovation and creativity? There was lots of it on display. My first stop was a stand operated by Mulita, age 13 and her friend Lily. She was selling keychains, fridge magnets, and pins (including Ukrainian flag pins) made from modular plastic pieces glued together. I asked her where the design ideas came from. “We make these things together with our friends, and we draw and think up the designs ourselves” she replied. Original art!

Next door was Abba, aged 11, selling similar products made of baker’s dough, then painted in bright colours. She too created her own designs.

Phyfer, aged 13 and Zane, 12, had produced 3D printed sea creatures and other animals in moulded plastic, which they then decorated, assisted by design software they had programmed themselves. (As I wrote recently, machine assisted creativity is still a human creation, qualifying for copyright protection.) On and on it went; macrame, jewellery, gift cards, tie-dye, wood carvings, hand-made soaps—all (or most) from original designs. I bought a couple of cut-out gift cards, which could be customized with a personalized greeting; an orca in the background (lots of them along the BC coast) framed by the cut-out. I think the creator of these cards was the one who told me that she was “Nine years old” but then hastened to add, “…but I’m almost ten!”.

A nice touch was the fact that a portion of the proceeds would be going to various charities, the Canadian Red Cross, Ukrainian relief, a Homeless Shelter. It was a very impressive small business showcase cum arts and crafts market; the artists were definitely keen, very articulate and clearly motivated. There were 70 stands with 90 participants. Next year Prof. Smith said he hopes to have 200 stands and 300 participating. And when I suggested that he add an IP component to his teaching module, he readily agreed. We all know (or should know) that IP is a valuable business asset.

Innovation and IP cover more than copyright and design of course. The WIPO website highlights several interesting inventions created by young innovators (young defined as below the age of 35). I have no doubt that some of the teens and pre-teens that I met at Kidovate will be making their own contributions to creation and innovation as they grow into adults. They are already off to a good start.

© Hugh Stephens 2022. All Rights Reserved

Copyright References in the Budget: Good Intentions Are Welcome but Early Action is Needed


Last week I discussed the copyright needle buried in the 2022 Canadian budget haystack, a reference to impending legislation to amend the Copyright Act to fulfill Canada’s obligation under the USMCA/CUSMA to extend its term of copyright protection from the life of the author plus 50 years to “life plus 70”. The amendments will be tacked on as part of the 2022 Budget Implementation Bill along with a number of other measures unrelated to the budget. The only remaining question on term extension is whether the government will do the right and sensible thing and simply automatically extend the term of protection going forward (normally there is no retroactive extension for works that have already fallen into the public domain, even if that just happened) or whether they will listen to the lobbying from anti-copyright voices who are proposing that Canada institute a barrier to automatic extension by requiring rights-holders to renew their copyright through a registration process in order to access the additional period of protection. As I explained in last week’s blog, it would be a major mistake for the government to do this, creating an unnecessary bureaucracy, causing confusion and increasing complexity for users who will have to research whether copyright has been extended on a work, and likely being inconsistent with Canada’s international obligations under the Berne Convention.

But in addition to stating that copyright extension amendments will be included in the forthcoming budget bill, the budget document also added the following;

“The government is committed to ensuring that the Copyright Act protects all creators and copyright holders. As such, the government will also work to ensure a sustainable education publishing industry including fair remuneration for creators and copyright holders, as well as a modern and innovative marketplace that can efficiently serve copyright users.”

Why was this in the budget? Does it signal that there will also be legislation to restore some balance to use of unlicensed commercially published educational content by educational users? That would be welcome and long overdue. To achieve this, the overly-broad educational fair dealing exception introduced in 2012 needs to be amended and made more precise.

And what does “a modern and innovative marketplace that can efficiently serve copyright users” look like? Could it be that we will have a return to collective licensing of educational content after the disastrous Supreme Court of Canada decision last year that pulled the foundation out from under Canada’s collective licensing system for educational materials? (The Supreme Court upheld the Federal Court of Appeals decision that “mandatory tariffs” were mandatory only for providers of educational materials, not for users such as colleges and universities.) If this is the case, these are probably not measures that would be slipped into a budget implementation omnibus bill, although I suppose it is always possible. After all, there has already been extensive consultation on the fair dealing question. But if legislation to fix the educational publishing crisis is not being brought forth now as part of budget implementation, why then the reference in the budget?

It is likely to send a signal to publishers and authors that relief is coming (hopefully soon) even though it won’t be as part of the copyright extension process. Publishers, authors and their collective society, Access Copyright, have been looking for an opportunity to propose amendments to the Act to address problems with the definition of educational fair dealing and to fix the mandatory tariff issue. Because the Copyright Act has to be amended before the end of 2022 to deal with term extension, (according to the terms of the CUSMA agreement), this seemed to provide an opportunity to deal with these other pressing copyright issues. The budget reference therefore is a recognition that something needs to be done and a signal that fixing the problems is high on the government’s agenda. A sign of good faith intentions if you will. Given the “confidence and supply” agreement reached with the New Democrats, the Trudeau government now has some headroom and the ability to get legislation passed since it can expect to govern until the statutory date of the next general election in 2025.  

Inclusion of references to “a sustainable educational publishing industry” in the budget should mean that the government is finally ready to move forward to repair the damage caused by opening the fair dealing floodgates in 2012. There has already been extensive consultation, two Parliamentary committees have reviewed the issue and have recognized the problem, and a lengthy court process upholding findings of unfairness by York University, as a proxy for the post-secondary sector, has been completed. Although the educational sector will fight tooth and nail to leave things as they are and continue their free ride at the expense of the creators of educational content, it is time to move from consultation to action. After a decade of litigation and consultation, remedial action is required if Canada is to maintain a viable educational publishing sector so that Canadian students can continue to benefit from the creation of culturally-relevant educational materials. The impact on the publishing sector has been devastating; jobs in the book industry declined by over 30% between 2012 and 2019, the education sector has deprived Canadian creators and publishers of approximately $190 million in unpaid royalties under tariffs certified by the Copyright Board, and a number of publishers have exited the education market.

The fix to fair dealing is relatively straightforward. It needs to be narrowed so that the education fair dealing exception applies only when a work is not commercially available, as per the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Heritage in 2019. This would avoid the current college and university practice of reproducing works, piece by piece, supposedly to enable students to exercise their individual fair dealing rights, with the result often being that the entire work, or most of it, is made available to students in course packs all under guise of fair dealing and with no license or payment to the rights-holder. This will require a change to the legislation.

So too will clarifying the role of the Copyright Board of Canada in setting “tariffs” (licence fees) for use of materials in the repertoire of a collective society such as Access Copyright. This is a complicated issue, made more complicated by the finding of the Federal Court of Appeal (FCA), recently upheld by the Supreme Court. Until these court decisions, the practice and understanding had been that payment for use of any materials subject to a Copyright Board tariff decision became mandatory on all users if they reproduced covered content without obtaining a license.

However, based on its reading of the history of the legislation the FCA, upheld on appeal by the Supreme Court, ruled that the tariff is mandatory only when applied to a user. In other words, a rights-holder cannot withhold a licence to reproduce material if that material is subject to a tariff established by the Copyright Board, assuming the user agrees to pay the tariff. But the reverse (imposing a requirement to pay on a user who reproduces material covered by a tariff without obtaining a licence) is not mandatory. Instead, a rights-holder would have to bring an infringement action against the user. This decision undermined the system of collective licensing for educational works established some 30 years ago to avoid the necessity for individual users and institutions to have to negotiate licences with individual rights-holders, or for individual rights-holders to have to resort to litigation against individual users each time there was an alleged infringement. It was a system that worked for both authors and users, until it began to break down about a decade ago over licence negotiations. When the collective and users could not agree on a licensing agreement, the Copyright Board stepped in to establish fair remuneration based on estimates of the amount of copying engaged in by user institutions. Once a tariff was established, it was considered binding on all users if they accessed any of the repertoire covered by the tariff. And now a key pillar of that system has been removed by the courts.

It is not clear whether the promise in the budget document to bring about a “modern and innovative marketplace” to “efficiently serve copyright users” is a reference to the reinstitution of a viable collective licensing regime, probably in parallel with a review of the mandate and procedures of the Copyright Board. Hopefully that is what it means. A collective licensing regime is by far the most efficient means to serve users.

When the Copyright Act was last reviewed and overhauled in 2012, the intention was that this would be a process conducted every five years. That period has now doubled, although in the interim there have been consultation papers issued on various aspects of copyright (AI, Internet of Things, Data Mining, Orphan works, etc.), and a review by two Parliamentary committees which brought forth numerous recommendations. All this to prepare for Copyright Act updating. Despite the preparatory work, this will take time. Some of these issues, like the ones mentioned in the budget, should be fast-tracked and acted on now.

If the statement in the budget was a down-payment of sorts, a statement of good intentions, that is all well and good. But we all know that a road paved with good intentions, but no action, leads to only one place. And that is a hell of a place to be. The government should act on its commitments laid out in the budget and convert those intentions into legislation as quickly as possible. Other potential changes coming out of the much-needed and long-overdue review of the Copyright Act should also be put in motion so that a full overhaul of the Act can be completed before the next election. 

© Hugh Stephens 2022. All Rights Reserved

The Copyright Needle in the Budget Haystack (And Why Requiring Registration for Copyright Extension is a Really Bad Idea)

There it was! The copyright needle in the budget haystack. As plain as day–buried on p. 274 of Canadian Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s 280 page 2022 budget under “Other Legislative Measures” along with a grab-bag of about 40 other measures.  These ranged from legislation to enable Canada’s participation in the Lunar Gateway, to Criminal Code amendments to ban the communication of statements, other than in private conversation, that willfully promote antisemitism by condoning, denying or downplaying the Holocaust, to dealing with clean drinking water and better infrastructure for First Nations communities by repealing the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act (?), and so on. Almost four dozen unrelated ornaments hung on the budget Christmas tree. Item number 5 was labelled “Amendments to the Copyright Act”.

Why would an amendment to the Copyright Act be buried in the budget (along with the other assorted seemingly random legislative measures)? Because it’s a convenient way to pass legislation, that’s why. You scoop up all the legislative loose ends and you append them to the budget bill, and if the budget passes, and it will, the other attached pieces of legislation pass as well. Given that the Liberal government is in a minority situation, yet has just signed a “confidence and supply agreement” with the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) by which the New Democrats will support the government in confidence votes for the next three years provided that the Liberals add some social programs advocated for by the NDP, like a dental plan and a pharmacare plan, to their “to do” list, then bundling loose ends and even some potentially controversial legislative items into a budget bill is a good way of ensuring that these legislative amendments become law with as little fuss and scrutiny as possible.

This is also a well-known tactic in the US Congress where unrelated pieces of legislation get attached to “must-pass” money bills on a regular basis. That is how the CASE Act, a worthy piece of legislation that had been blocked by just one Senator, was passed, as I wrote last year (“Making Sausage: How the CASE Act Finally Became Law”). That legislation created a Copyright Claims Board within the US Copyright Office, a sort of “small claims court” for copyright infringements. The CASE Act will help small creators bring infringement claims without having to resort to expensive litigation but had been blocked by Sen. Rod Wyden of Oregon. However, it was added to the 5,593 page, $1.4 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Bill, 2021 that funded the COVID relief program and kept the US government functioning. When that Bill finally passed the US Congress, so did the CASE Act, and it is now part of the law of the land. So good things can happen from using this procedure. Sometimes you just “gotta do what you gotta do”.

But back to the Canadian budget, introduced on April 7. With regard to amendments to the Copyright Act that are to be incorporated into the Budget Implementation Bill when it is introduced, (probably in May), the budget document had this to say;

In Budget 2022, the government proposes to introduce amendments to the Copyright Act to extend the general term of copyright protection from 50 to 70 years after the life of the author as agreed under the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement.

The government is committed to ensuring that the Copyright Act protects all creators and copyright holders. As such, the government will also work to ensure a sustainable educational publishing industry, including fair remuneration for creators and copyright holders, as well as a modern and innovative marketplace that can efficiently serve copyright users.”

Let’s unpack the first part of this statement. There are two elements–what has to happen, and what some anti-copyright elements hope will happen. Extending the term of copyright protection is required to implement Canadian commitments made during the renegotiation of NAFTA, culminating in the NAFTA 2.0 agreement, known as the USMCA (or CUSMA in Canada). While it is a given that this will happen, it is still not completely clear as to how it will be implemented. According to Article 20.89.4 (c) of the USMCA/CUSMA, Canada has 2.5 years from the date of entry into force of the USMCA/CUSMA, which was July 1, 2020, to implement the provision. In other words, it needs to be enacted into legislation by the end of 2022.

Some opponents of term extension, notably University of Ottawa law professor and prolific blogger Michael Geist, have argued that even though Canada has a legal obligation to extend its copyright term, it can do so by instituting a registration requirement for rights-holders if they want to benefit from the added period of protection. In effect this proposal, which was picked up by one of two Parliamentary committees that reviewed the Copyright Act back in 2019, would impose an additional registration process (copyright renewal) on a rights-holder as a condition for gaining access to the additional 20 years of protection. It would put in place a gateway, a hurdle, an additional bureaucratic barrier if you will, as part of Canada’s implementation of its commitment. The objective is to make it more difficult for rights-holders in Canada to access the same degree of protection enjoyed by rights-holders in similar circumstances in the US, EU, UK, Australia, Japan and many other countries. In other words, for those who oppose extending Canada’s copyright term, they grudgingly concede that extension will happen but their intent seems to be to make it as difficult as possible for rights-holders to take advantage of it.

Imposing a copyright renewal registration requirement is an exceedingly bad idea, and one that was not endorsed by the other Parliamentary Committee (the Heritage Committee) that also undertook copyright review. It would impose an additional and unnecessary burden on rights-holders to be able to access the full term of protection they are entitled to for their works but worse, it would create uncertainty and cause confusion for users who would find it difficult, costly and time-consuming to verify whether or not a work fell under the “life plus 50” (life of the author plus 50 years) or the new “life plus 70” term. There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate the downsides of a copyright renewal scheme, using the example of what happened in the United States.

For many years, determining whether or not a work was still protected by copyright in the US was an unnecessarily complex and difficult task owing to the existence of a renewal requirement in US law. And for older works it remains complicated. Under the 1909 US Copyright Act, works copyrighted in the United States prior to January 1, 1978, were originally subject to two consecutive copyright terms, each of 28 years duration. The first term was granted upon registration of copyright, but the second term required an additional registration and renewal after the expiration of the first 28 year term. After the Act was modified in 1976, the second renewal period was upped to 47 years, for a total term of protection of 75 years, assuming renewal was applied for.

A problem was that many rights-holders neglected to renew their copyright. (Anti copyright advocates would no doubt say this was a good thing, but it complicated matters for users who found it difficult to determine if a work was in the public domain or still protected). Failure to renew applied not just to authors of books, but also to rights-holders for movies and other creative works. There are examples of where some of the rights in a movie were renewed, e.g. the screenplay, whereas other elements were not, leading to more confusion. Apart from the injustice occurring from an inadvertent oversight in complying with a somewhat arcane law that deprived a rights-holder (which could be the estate or heirs of the original author) of the economic benefits of copyright, users found it difficult to determine whether a work was still covered. To know for certain whether a work had been renewed, and therefore was still protected by copyright, a user has to search the Catalogue of Copyright Entries maintained by the US Copyright Office.

A good example of the problems caused by imposition of a copyright renewal requirement is illustrated by the FAQ answers provided by this online library website in the US in response to the question, “How can I tell whether a copyright was renewed?”;

One easy way to check, sometimes, is just to see if there was any edition published more than 28 years after the original edition, and see if there’s a renewal notice in that newer edition. This doesn’t always work– a lot of books simply don’t get reprinted– but if there is such an edition, it can be an easy check to make.

Another way that doesn’t involve an exhaustive copyright record search is to write to the author, or their agent or estate, or to the last publisher of the book, and see if they can tell you whether the book’s copyright was renewed…It’s also possible to do a search yourself of the copyright records. For 1978 onward, they’re online at the Copyright Office…

Copyright records prior to 1978 can also be found in print and microform at the Library of Congress, and at other major libraries around the country, including many Federal Depository Libraries…Since a copyright renewal has to be sometime in the 28th year, you’d look for renewals in the records for the original copyright date plus 27 years and the original date plus 28 years. So if the copyright was originally 1941, you’d look at the volumes for 1968 and 1969 to see if there was a renewal…

You can also arrange for the Copyright Office to do the search for you. There’s a form you can fill out and send to them, and they’ll eventually let you know if they find any renewal records, and if so, what they say. This has gotten rather expensive as of late; as of October 2019, the fees amount to $200 per hour (with a 2-hour minimum) for them to search their files for you…”

Simple, eh? This costly and unnecessary step, requiring an additional bureaucracy, is what will happen if Canada unwisely adopts a copyright renewal requirement as part of the process of extending its copyright term. No other country, to my knowledge, has ever imposed such a barrier when it extended its term of protection. (More than 80 countries worldwide have “life plus 70” as their term, another good reason for Canada to join the majority of its trading partners and harmonize its copyright term with theirs, benefiting Canadian creators in the process). As for the US, given the problems presented by copyright renewal, it abolished this system in 1992 when it passed the Copyright Amendments Act, making renewal automatic. The renewal system was messy and complicated as you can see by this US Copyright Office interpretive bulletin. Today in the United States, (indeed for all works created since 1978) the situation is much more straightforward for new works. Authors get a period of protection of “life plus 70” with no renewal or registration requirement. It is beyond comprehension that Canada would want to go backward and institute a renewal requirement.

A further barrier to making the full term of “life plus 70” conditional on a renewal registration is Canada’s membership in the Berne Convention, the international copyright convention to which almost all countries belong. Berne requires a minimum copyright term of life plus 50 years (with no registration requirement) but allows members to apply a longer term if they wish. Members applying a longer term may offer that longer term to rights-holders in all Berne Convention countries or they may limit the benefits of the longer term to nationals only of those countries that offer a reciprocal term of protection. For this reason, Canadian rights-holders will gain the benefit of an extra period of protection in the EU once Canada extends its term and brings it into alignment with the period of protection granted in EU member states.

If Canada instituted a renewal registration requirement to gain access to the additional twenty years of protection, this would almost certainly be a violation of the Berne Convention principle that protection must not be conditional upon compliance with any formality, i.e. the Berne cardinal principle of “automatic” protection. (No-one knows for sure if it would be a Berne violation because no state has ever been dumb enough to shoot itself in the foot by imposing one). However, it has been argued by those opposed to extending the term of protection that since Berne only requires a protection period of “life plus 50”, a registration requirement for the additional period would not be inconsistent with the Convention. The only close parallel we have suggests that this is not true.

Based on the precedent of what happened when the US finally joined Berne in 1989, it is possible that Canada could technically require Canadian rights-holders to register for the additional period but would still have to extend the benefit of the full “life plus 70” term to rights-holders from other Berne Convention countries without requiring them to register, even as it subjects Canadians to this restrictive measure. This is what happened when the United States joined Berne. For many years, the US maintained a copyright registration system that was incompatible with Berne’s principles, which was one of the reasons it declined to join the Convention. When the US finally decided it needed to join Berne, it was required to abolish its compulsory registration requirement used to establish copyright but nonetheless retained voluntary registration in cases where rights-holders wished to bring infringement cases. However, because of Berne, the US could not apply this additional registration requirement to non-US rights holders. This has resulted in the rather bizarre situation where a US rights-holder has to register copyright in order to bring an infringement action in the US but a non-US rights-holder is exempted from doing so. In this instance, foreigners get “better than national treatment” in the United States. Were Canada to impose registration requirements, it would be disadvantaging Canadian rights-holders compared to non-Canadians.

Dr. Geist ignores all the drawbacks and pitfalls of a renewal registration regime and instead repeats a number of tired and in some cases debunked arguments about term extension imposing a “hidden tax on consumers”. It is no more a tax than an environmental recycling fee is a tax. There are probably some instances where consumers are required to pay more for a book that is protected by copyright than one in the public domain, although the evidence of this is inconclusive. Public domain works are often no cheaper than works still under copyright. Just as there are valid reasons why consumers pay more for products that come in recyclable containers, so too there may be valid reasons why a book under copyright carries a higher retail price than a public domain work. One of these may be royalties paid to the author. Pirated movies and streaming services also offer lower costs to consumers than legitimate services; it doesn’t follow that we should compare prices for pirate services with those in which distributors license content legally. I don’t have the time and space in this blog post to deal with all the misleading claims about the supposed costs of term extension, but I covered many of them in this earlier posting, “Copyright Term Extension in Canada: Facts versus “Fake News”.

So, in the end, what is the government likely to do? Hopefully it will take the sensible option of extending Canada’s copyright term of protection in a simple, straightforward, and transparent way, avoiding the costly and unnecessary creation of a copyright renewal registration process. Given the signals that were sent during a consultation paper on the extension issue in February of 2021, it will provide some means to address the question of “orphan works” and “out of commerce” works that is of concern to the “LAM” (Libraries, Archives and Museums) sector, but will sensibly ignore the copyright minimalists campaign to complicate the copyright system for both rights-holders and users alike by adding a registration requirement. This common sense outcome would indeed make the search for that copyright needle worth the effort.  

© Hugh Stephens 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Flagging Copyright Concerns: Vexillologists Take Note

Credit: Author

People who are really into flags are known as vexillologists, a rather specialized field that studies the history, symbolism and usage of flags. If the papers offered at the periodic International Congress of Vexillology are any guide, then many things attract the attention of flag scholars, such as “The Flags of Bulgarian Municipalities”, “The Flags of Genghis Khan”, or “The History of the Flag of Gambia”, but copyright does not seem to be one of them. Yet copyright has a vexillological angle, one that just cost the Australian government over $20 million dollars. This was the sum paid to Aboriginal artist Harold Thomas to acquire the copyright to Mr. Thomas’ design for what has become known as the “Aboriginal Flag”.

Thomas designed the flag in 1970 and the black, red and gold flag was widely adopted by Aboriginal groups. In 1995 it was given “national flag” status by the Australian government, but Australia did not “own” the flag, at least not until now. Two years later, in 1997, an Australian court affirmed that Thomas was the copyright holder for the flag design. Thomas did not claim the copyright on the flag until after the Australian government had made it official under the Flags Act, and he was challenged by two other purported creators. However, the judgement was in his favour, and ever since there has been uncertainty over who can use it, and in what form. In 1998, after winning the judgement, Thomas granted a licence to a company called Flags 2000, giving that company the right to reproduce and manufacture the flag, and in November 2018 he licensed the design to a non-indigenous company, WAM Clothing.

That licence gave WAM the exclusive right to reproduce the flag design on clothing, and in physical and digital media. It had been traditional for major Australian rules and rugby league teams in Australia to feature the flag on football uniforms during events honoring Aboriginal athletes, but WAM issued cease and desist orders unless they received royalties, arousing considerable controversy. Non-profits who were selling tee-shirts with the flag on it were also sent letters demanding payment. WAM was made out to be the bad guys, but they were protecting the rights they had paid for. However, it didn’t help that WAM’s part-owner, a non-Aboriginal, had been fined $2.3 million for selling fake Aboriginal art through a previous company.

The fundamental problem was that it is highly unusual to have a flag that is regarded as a national symbol be subject to private copyright. A compulsory licence was proposed, and hearings were held. However, the Australian Senate concluded that government action to, in effect, confiscate Thomas’ copyright would result in perpetuating oppression and injustice against Aboriginal peoples.  The solution was to negotiate with Thomas to acquire the rights, including extinguishing rights sold to licensees such as WAM. Thomas will retain the moral rights.

As reported in Lexology, “As part of the deal, Flagworld will keep its exclusive licence to be able to manufacture Aboriginal flags for commercial use, however the government has confirmed that Flagworld would not stop people from making their own flags for personal use…The Government has confirmed that all future royalties the Commonwealth receives from Flagworld’s sale of the flag will be put towards the ongoing work of NAIDOC.” (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee).

In addition to buying out the rights to the flag, the Australian government agreed to establish an annual $100,000 scholarship named for Thomas to help Indigenous students develop skills in leadership, and to create an online history and education portal for the flag. So, it seems, that problem has been solved for the people of Australia, and Harold Thomas will be a happy man. But Thomas’ flag is not the only Indigenous flag widely flown.

In North America the “Mohawk Warrior” flag has flown since the mid-1970s at various Indigenous-related events. The flag, designed by Indigenous artist Karoniaktajeh Louis Hall, was first hoisted when a group of Mohawks occupied land in the Adirondacks in New York State. It became widely known as a native symbol during the so-called “Oka Crisis”, a standoff between the Mohawk community of Kanesatake and Canadian police and troops in July of 1990. Since then it has been flown at many protest meetings and occupations involving different native groups (not just Mohawks), as well as at cultural gatherings and activities. If you want one of these flags they are available from Amazon, Flagmart, Etsy and so on. Or you can get the design on hoodies, tee-shirts or facemasks. The big difference between the Mohawk Warrior flag and Harold Thomas’ aboriginal design in Australia is that unlike the “official” aboriginal flag, the unofficial Mohawk flag is available for anyone to use through a Creative Commons “Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” That means any user is free to share, i.e. copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to adapt by remixing, transforming or building upon the material for any purpose, even commercially.”

When it comes to the use of official flags, copyright generally does not apply because of the age of the flag designs, putting them in the public domain. In the US, federal government works, including Old Glory, cannot be copyrighted. However, the flag may be protected by other means. For example, flags can be protected under Article 6ter of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property of 1883 (1967 Stockholm Act). The purpose of this article is to prohibit the registration and use of trademarks that are identical or similar to notified official emblems. In Canada, the Canadian flag is also protected through trademark registration, prohibiting commercial use without permission.

In British Columbia, where I reside, there is a provincial flag adopted in 1960. According to the BC government’s website, the flag is protected by Crown copyright (although since Crown copyright in Canada only lasts for 50 years from the date of creation, it would seem that the copyright on the flag must have expired in 2010). The BC government makes digital artwork files available for download, but the user must not alter the aspect ratio of the flag, use part of the flag, or adjust the image in any way. And just in case you weren’t thinking, “The provincial flag should never be used as a tablecloth, carpet or seat cover, but instead be hung in a place of honour.” What about as a window covering, which I have seen many times in lieu of curtains? Maybe that is a “place of honour”?

And then there is the Vancouver Island flag, featured with some others in the image at the top of this blog post. I took the photo at a local marina. (It is the blue ensign, second from the right). This flag is a historical curiosity and depending on whether it is considered an official pennant or not, it could be long out of copyright protection or potentially still covered. In 1865, the British Admiralty authorized British colonies with naval assets to commission their own flags by superimposing (defacing, in vexillological terms) the seal of the colony on the fly leaf of the blue ensign. This was the pattern used for British colonial flags in many territories in Africa, the West Indies and the South Pacific and is still used for the state flags of the various Australian states. While in theory such a flag could have been produced for the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island, which was established in 1849, in August of 1866 Vancouver Island was merged with the Colony of British Columbia. A few years later, in 1871, the combined colony entered Canada as its sixth province. If such a flag had been produced for Vancouver Island in 1865-66, its Crown copyright would have long since expired. However, the flag flown today was conjured up by a local vexillologist, Michael Halleran, in 1988, based on the 19th century British Admiralty regulations. Halleran had it produced in a local flag shop, and it has become increasingly popular, as a novelty. While Halleran says he does not claim copyright in the flag, that does not necessarily mean the flag is in the public domain.

Flags have been used to make political statements throughout history, and the present is no exception. The “truckers’ convoy”, (I could call it a “freedom convoy” but that would be a misnomer, unless you define “freedom” to mean that I can do whatever I want whenever I want without any regard for the impact of my actions on others), which for three weeks from late January to mid-February occupied the streets of Ottawa right in front of the Parliament Buildings, adopted several flags to get its point across. Apart from Canadian flags festooned from every 18-wheeler and pick up truck (to demonstrate their “patriotism”, you see), this rag-tag bunch managed to round up Confederate flags, US Gadsden libertarian “Don’t Tread on Me” flags (with a Canadian variation, converting the snake into a Canada goose), a Nazi flag and even a revived version of the “patriote” flag from the 1837 rebellion in Lower Canada. All these flags carry hidden or not so hidden messages. It just goes to show that when a cause is flagging, flag your intentions with a new banner. (pardon the pun). Create a new flag (or revive an old one) for the vexillologists to discuss at their next international convention. If its original, your flag just might enjoy copyright protection. Unless of course it is the “Jolly Roger”. Imagine pirating a pirate flag!

© Hugh Stephens 2022, All Rights Reserved.

The Humanity of Copyright

Source: pixabay (modified)

Recently the US Copyright Office (USCO) reaffirmed its longstanding position that human authorship is a pre-condition for recognition of copyright, despite being pushed hard by a particular protagonist within the tech community to accept artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of a machine (NB his machine) or software as a creator with rights. Stephen Thaler, PhD (identified by some sources as Steven Thaler) is, according to this website, the CEO of Imagination Engines Incorporated. His LinkedIn profile says that he is “a pioneer in the area of artificial intelligence and the inventor of the Creativity Machine(R) Paradigm, US Patent 5,659,666 and its derivatives.” Apparently, this machine has been used “to design a wealth of commercially available products”. It must be quite a machine because apparently it also produces autonomous art. This art, a two-dimensional image entitled “A Recent Entrance to Paradise”, was the subject of the USCO Review Board’s recent decision, which ended a three-year struggle by Thaler to get his Creativity Machine recognized as the creator of the work.

According to the USCO, in 2018 Thaler sought to register the work, identifying the author as the “Creativity Machine”. Knowing the well-established position of the Copyright Office not to grant copyright to works created by non-human efforts, such as works created through AI, Thaler tried to invoke the process of recordation, whereby owners may transfer their copyrights to others, and have this transfer recorded by the Office. In this case, he claimed that the work “was autonomously created by a computer algorithm running on a machine” and he was seeking to register this computer-generated work as a “work for hire” to the owner of the Creativity Machine, himself. When Thaler’s application was refused, he appealed, arguing not only that the requirement for human authorship was unconstitutional but also that copyright law already allows non-humans (i.e. corporations) to be authors under the “work for hire” doctrine. Although his appeal was denied by the USCO he appealed yet again, this time to the Review Board. In refusing to revisit the Office’s decision to reject the application, the Review Board cited multiple precedents where human authorship was established as a prima facie requirement for copyright registration. As for the “work for hire” argument, it pointed out that a work for hire must be prepared by an “employee” or those who have contracted to produce a work for hire. In both cases a binding contract or agreement is required. A machine cannot enter into a contract, whereas a corporation (a legal entity) is able do so. Moreover, the work for hire doctrine only identifies the owner of the work, not whether it is protected by copyright. And since it was not created by a human, it cannot be subject to copyright. Case dismissed.

One can speculate as to why Thaler was so insistent on imbuing his Creativity Machine, for which he holds US Patent no. 5,659,666, with the attributes of authorship. Could it have something to do with raising the profile and marketability of this invention? You can imagine the coverage. “Art produced by AI Machine first to be awarded Copyright Protection.” Despite Thaler’s persistence, it ain’t gonna happen. Sorry Steven, or is it Stephen, but it was a valiant effort. You should have registered the copyright in Britain, where there is a provision for copyright protection for machine-generated works where no human author of the work is involved. (see below)

Blogger and copyright scholar Stephen Carlisle has speculated that one outcome of the doctrine that stipulates machines cannot be authors will be that humans will claim for themselves works that have been produced by machines. In other words, they will lie to gain the protection of copyright for works created autonomously by AI. It is worth noting that Thaler’s position was exactly the opposite. He went to great lengths to specify that the work for which he was seeking registration was the creation of his Creativity Machine, not him. The Review Board anticipated the argument that denying copyright protection for machine generated works will encourage dishonesty and inaccurate claims of authorship by noting the criminal penalties that exist for those knowingly making false representations, plus the fact that registration can be cancelled if invalidly filed. In Britain a similar concern has been raised since works produced by human authors get a longer term of protection than purely machine-generated works. Like the USCO, the British authority considers that legal provisions regarding fraudulent representations provide sufficient protection against such activities.

The question of whether a machine can actually create an original, copyrightable work without human intervention is controversial. For now, in most jurisdictions, there is still the presumption that despite the use of machine learning, software, and technology, there is still a human hand behind original works. For example, a couple of years ago a Chinese court addressed this issue, finding that an automated article written by a program called Dreamwriter, created by Tencent, which had been copied and published without permission by another Chinese company, Yinxun, was nevertheless subject to copyright protection because it met the originality test through the involvement of a creative group of editors. These people performed a number of functions to direct the program, such as arranging the data input and format, selecting templates for the structure of the article, and training the algorithm model. In other words, there was sufficient human authorship—and thus there was copyright, and infringement of copyright.

Nonetheless, at times it is a fine line when it comes to assessing how much human creativity has gone into a machine-enabled work. Carlisle provides the example of Dmitry Evgrafov, the writer of computer code for an app called “Endel”. Warner Music signed a deal to distribute 600 tracks created by Endel. What is significant is Evgrafov’s claim that the music was produced with a few clicks of a mouse, with minimal human involvement outside of chopping up the audio and mastering it for streaming. There are machines that allow people to compose music (even though these people don’t even have the ability to read or write music), by manipulating various musical elements, such as rhythm, harmonics, etc. to blend them into a “new” piece of music. How much human creativity is involved? Not much, so is the end product a creation of the software, or is it a human creation enabled by the software?

If AI is a current test case of human authorship, one cannot help but also reference the role of animals arising from the infamous Monkey Selfie case, about which I and others have written. (The Monkey Selfie Case: Applying the Common Sense Test”) and (“The Monkey Selfie Case: Will It Have Broader Repercussions for AI and Copyright?). In this case, the issue revolved around whether wildlife photographer David Slater was the author of the monkey’s selfie because he had not himself clicked the shutter, despite having artistically staged and made technically possible the taking of the photo. Although that was the question, the judge in California ended up ruling whether the copyright belonged to “Naruto”, the macaque that was the subject of the photo, rather than whether the work was Slater’s or in the public domain.

Naruto’s claim was a publicity stunt by PETA, the Society for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but it ended up financially ruining Slater. Of course, Naruto’s claim (presented on behalf of the animal by PETA as a legal “next friend”) was dismissed, but there were some interesting moments. During the trial there were questions raised as to whether Naruto’s “children and grandchildren” could be handed the copyright, (and how they would be identified) were it to be awarded, and whether Naruto was obliged to send letters to the other monkeys in the group to let them know about the court case, since some of them had also been inadvertently included in photos snapped by Naruto. Just as with the Creativity Machine, it was apparent that a non-human could potentially create something that might qualify as a work, but that an inanimate creator could not exercise any of the other attributes necessary to establish copyright. If a reason is needed to deny copyright protection to works not produced by humans, this is a good one, but still does not finally decide the question as to whether, inevitably, there is always a human creator behind the non-human.

Think of elephants, those well trained, hard-working creatures that not only allow us to ride them (sometimes), but which have been harnessed for centuries for logging, waging war and other human-directed endeavours. Give an elephant a paint brush, a couple of buckets of paint, and a canvas and you might get something that is not worse than some other forms of modern art. If it qualified as an original work, I would award the copyright to the human who created the framework for all this to happen. It is no different than using other means to create art; automatic spray guns, nude bodies smeared in paint, and so on. In this case, the instrument just happens to be an elephant rather than a machine. But someone created the concept and made it happen. A human.

Those who argue that the definition of author or creator should be expanded beyond humans point to the lack of specificity in the laws of most countries when it comes to defining who is an author. The Berne Convention, the cornerstone of international copyright protection, is a case in point. First drafted in the 1880’s it protects “authors”, but nowhere does it define the term. Rather, it protects “every production in the literary, scientific and artistic domain, whatever the mode or form of its expression”. The drafters of the convention could not conceive of a literary, scientific or artistic work that was not the result of human endeavour. So, human creation is implicit. In US law, the Copyright Act protects “original works of authorship”, but without providing a definition of what an original work is. However, the USCO Review Board in Thaler’s case noted that “Courts interpreting the Copyright Act, including the Supreme Court, have uniformly limited copyright protection to creations of human authors”, and cited various references where courts have referred to authors as humans or “a man”, presumably in the sense of “mankind” rather than a gender-specific reference.

While it is generally accepted in most jurisdictions that human creation is an essential ingredient to claim copyright protection, there are some exceptions. Earlier I referred to the United Kingdom. Under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, there is a provision (Section 178) that states computer generated works are works “generated by computer in circumstances such that there is no human author of the work”(emphasis added). These works are currently provided with a more limited term of copyright protection (50 years from the date of creation) as opposed to the standard life plus 70 years provided to works made solely by human authors or authors assisted by AI. (The rights-holder for a fully computer-generated work is “the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the creation of the work are undertaken”, even though that person played no creative role.) The UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) is currently reviewing provisions for protection of AI under the Act, with possible changes ranging from a requirement that human creativity must be involved in order to claim copyright protection, (in other words dropping machine-generated copyright entirely), to reducing the protection for computer-generated works to as little as five years, to retaining the status quo.

In re-examining whether computer-generated works should benefit from copyright protection, the UKIPO consultation paper has set out three considerations; the need to (1) encourage innovation in AI technology and promote its use for the public good; (2) preserve the central role of intellectual property in promoting human creativity and innovation (emphasis added); and (3) be based on the best available economic evidence. Arguments put forward for dropping machine-generated copyright include concerns that protecting computer-generated works may promote these works at the expense of human creations and devalue human creativity. (A machine can work 24/7; humans need to sleep and eat). Proponents for reducing the period of protection for computer-generated works argue there is no need to incentivize a computer to create works, yet protection imposes costs on third parties. Finally, those who support copyright for works produced exclusively with AI maintain that this provides additional economic incentive to invest in AI technology. The public consultation closed on January 7 of this year. No doubt we shall have to wait a while to see what proposals the Office brings forward.

As I wrote in an earlier blog (“AI, Ethics and Copyright”), one factor to consider with regard to the use of AI in creating works is ethical judgement, something only a human can provide;

Despite enablement by machines and the creation of “new” works using AI through compiling, synthesizing, modifying and re-arranging, at the end of the day there will always be a human creator behind the AI who will judge whether and when the AI work is complete. This person will ultimately take a position on any ethical questions that may arise and the output will be subject to human judgement in terms of choices, editing, finalization, and release.”

I believe that humanity and copyright must go hand in hand. The US Copyright Office apparently agrees although Stephen Thaler clearly does not. The Intellectual Property Office of the UK appears unsure.

What do you think?

© Hugh Stephens 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Requiring Digital Platforms to Pay for Using News Content: Canada Follows Australia’s Lead—But Not Precisely

Earlier this month I wrote about online safety legislation and noted how Canada is following Australia’s lead in developing a regime that would, among other things, create a Digital Safety Commissioner (called the eSafety Commissioner in Australia), as well as imposing requirements on internet platforms to monitor for, and expeditiously take down, certain types of harmful content. Australia’s updated legislation went into effect in January of this year while Canada is still in the public comment stage for its proposals. Another area where it seems that Canada intends to take a leaf out of Australia’s book is with regard to requiring large digital platforms to reach revenue sharing agreements with news content providers. The two countries share much in common, including the heritage of a Westminster-style government, but just the same there are some significant national differences, and these will likely be reflected in somewhat different versions of legislation in both cases, online safety and news revenue sharing.

Regarding the latter, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has said that legislation will be introduced “as soon as possible”. It was included as one of the primary “to do” tasks in his mandate letter when he was appointed minister in December of last year. The operative paragraph read;

Swiftly introduce legislation to require digital platforms that generate revenues from the publication of news content to share a portion of their revenues with Canadian news outlets to level the playing field between global platforms and Canadian outlets. This legislation should be modelled on the Australian approach and introduced in early 2022.”

Rodriguez has recently said that while the Canadian legislation will be modelled on the Australian version, it will differ in several ways. One change would be to delegate the power to decide which digital platforms will be required to negotiate with news content providers to an arms-length regulatory agency, rather than to a government minister. In Australia, although the News Media Bargaining Code was developed by the competition regulator, the Australian Competition and  Consumer Commission (ACCC), and the ACCC administers the code, the decision as to which online entities will be subject to it rests with the Australian Treasurer, equivalent to Canada’s Minister of Finance. Another agency, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), is responsible for determining eligibility of news media businesses to participate in the code. During the lead up to passage of the Australian legislation, only two platforms (Google and Facebook) were named as potentially being subject to the Code, and both mounted strong campaigns to stop the legislation. See “Google’s Latest ‘Stoush’ with Australia” and “Facebook in Australia: READY, FIRE, AIM”.

In the end, both buckled and came to agreements with Australian publishers, large and small. As a result, the Treasurer did not proceed to designate any platforms under the legislation that brought in the Code, and thus, at the present time, the Code is not operative. However, it achieved its goal without having to be invoked. As the ACCC puts it, “While the Treasurer has not designated any digital platforms or services to date, the ACCC considers that existence of the code and the threat of designation is having the appropriate and hoped for impact”.

Rodriguez said that Canada may also require greater disclosure of deal terms, which in the Australian case are kept confidential. Some news outlets in Canada, especially the smaller ones, are in favour of market transparency while larger players generally are not. Already some outlets in Canada have reached agreements with Google to be part of Google’s News Showcase, but others are still holding out, hoping for a better offer. The legislation will apparently establish a regulator and impose arbitration if reasonable terms cannot be agreed upon between the designated platforms and news providers, which will also include electronic media (radio and TV). Rodriguez wants to avoid any impression that government will be involved in picking winners out of this process.

News Media Canada, the umbrella industry group for the news publishing industry, (self-proclaimed as “the voice of the print and digital media industry in Canada”) has been pushing hard for the legislation. Back in July of last year, it encouraged many of its members to publish a front-page ”open letter” to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling for immediate action. That didn’t happen as an election intervened, one in which Trudeau’s Liberal Party, which had hoped to convert its minority status to a majority government, instead came back into office with roughly the same seat count. It still forms a minority government and therefore has to rely on the support of at least one of the major opposition parties to pass legislation. In the case of the news media bill, the Liberals can likely count on support from both the mildly leftwing New Democrats, who will be happy to ensure that large digital platforms pay their “fair share”, and the Quebec based Bloc Quebecois, which will be happy to be seen to support francophone media.

While there are several major news publishers in Canada, such as Nordstar which controls the Toronto Star, PostMedia, which publishes the National Post and many regional papers, the Globe and Mail and Quebecor which publishes French language dailies like Le Journal de Montréal, there are none that are as powerful politically as the major Australian papers, especially the ones owned by Rupert Murdoch. Newspapers in Canada just don’t have the same political clout as those Down Under. At the same time, the challenge facing the Canadian news industry in terms of revenues lost to digital platforms is as acute as elsewhere. It is reported that the two dominant digital platforms (Google and Facebook) took 80 percent of the $10 billion in online advertising revenues in 2020, according to Minister Rodriguez.

Beyond commercial considerations, Rodriguez is also invoking as justification for the new legislation the need to maintain a professional, credible, non-partisan media as a means to combat “fake news”, a phenomenon that was apparent during the truckers’ protest occupation of downtown Ottawa in February. Those protests saw several attacks on media reporters as they were doing their job.

Whether Canada’s legislation, when introduced, will be as successful as that of Australia in pushing the platforms to come to the table with reasonable offers for their use of news content, remains to be seen. Rodriguez is touting the Canadian legislation as being more transparent with less political involvement than that of Australia, perhaps a second mover advantage. However, there is no question that the firm stance of the Australian government in standing up to Google and Facebook (now called Meta) has made the task of other governments, like Canada, considerably easier. The US is also studying the Australian model.

The platforms have smelled the coffee and are finding ways to strike deals with news providers, in order to keep governments out of their hair. For that, Canada—and the people of Canada– owe the Australian government a debt of gratitude.

© Hugh Stephens 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: It’s Also a Culture and Content War

Source: Wikimedia commons

As you, dear reader, will know, this is a blog focused on copyright and content related issues, rather than politics, although at times there is an inevitable political spillover when dealing, for example, with the copyright dimensions of trade agreements, given that many such agreements are driven as much by political objectives as economic considerations. Given current political circumstances, and the horrific images we see daily as a result of Russia’s appalling and brutal invasion of Ukraine, I have decided to dedicate this week’s blog post to the people of Ukraine and their brave and tragic defence of their homeland. Since so much has already been written about what is happening there, and why, I will try to look at the issue from a slightly different perspective-its cultural and content implications, for Ukraine, for Russia, and for the rest of us.

When it comes to IP protection, and respect for copyright, neither Russia nor Ukraine are exactly paragons of virtue. In the most recent edition of its global IP index, the Global Innovation Policy Center (GIPC) of the US Chamber of Commerce, ranks Russia and Ukraine as numbers 32 and 41, respectively, out of 55 countries. The index measures IP performance across a range of categories, including patents, copyrights, trademarks, design rights, trade secrets, commercialization of IP assets, enforcement, systemic efficiency, and ratification of major international treaties. In the specific area of copyright, there are seven indicators, copyright term of protection, legal measures providing exclusive rights to prevent infringement, injunctive-style relief, frameworks that promote cooperative action against online piracy, scope of limitations and exceptions, existence of technological protection measures and policies requiring that software used by government be licensed. Out of a possible copyright score of 7, Russia clicks in at 2.74 and Ukraine at 1.83. In the category of licensed software, both get a big fat zero. This makes the threat by Russia to legalize software piracy (by creating a compulsory licensing mechanism for software, databases, and technology from companies based in countries that have imposed sanctions on  Russia) somewhat less threatening since software piracy is in excess of 90% anyway.  

The weak IP track records of both countries is perhaps not surprising given the history of Ukraine as a country that has struggled to establish itself as an independent entity with a free market economy after emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is perhaps less understandable in the case of Russia but even here we have a country that has struggled with the legacy of a past dominated by central planning where IP was a commodity that could be expropriated by the state or stolen for national purposes. War will not improve this situation.

Although western countries have imposed financial sanctions affecting banks and credit card companies, there have also been numerous voluntary actions taken by western companies in non-financial sectors. So far, among tech and software companies, Microsoft, Apple, Dell, Samsung, Adobe, Cisco, IBM and Intel, have announced they will be stopping sales to Russia. Netflix has announced that it is pulling out. The company had refused to carry Russian news channels on its local-language service, despite a new law requiring it to do so, and has suspended all projects and content acquisitions in Russia. Sony, Warner Bros, and Disney have announced a pause on new film releases. Facebook has barred Russian state media from running ads, as has Google, which has also removed Youtube channels associated with state-controlled Russian media.

When it comes to using the media and content platforms to get the message out regarding what is really happening in Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is running rings around Vladimir Putin. Zelenskyy has won the admiration of the world for his valiant personal stand, and ringing, heartfelt appeals for help. Dressed in fatigues and with the daily strain showing clearly on his stubbled face, the comparison with the clinical, almost chilling demeanor of Putin, perched at the far end of a marble table 35 feet from whoever he is speaking to, could not be more stark. Putin has blocked western media and social media and cracked down on any domestic coverage that does not fit his narrative of “liberation”. (It seems he is following the adage of “we had to destroy it to liberate it”). In response, the news broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today) has been removed from TV screens in Europe, the UK, North America and Australia. From both a tech and content perspective, Russia has been put on the blacklist. Will this mean that Russian authorities will now roll back their recently strengthened enforcement of copyright laws which, according to the 2022 GIPC report, has resulted in “a decrease in online infringement”? Probably.

Culture is another important element of the current crisis; specifically whether Ukraine as a nation has a culture that is distinct from that of Russia. It is an inconvenient fact for Mr. Putin that Ukraine not only has a vigorous, distinct culture, but that Ukrainians are determined to defend and preserve it. Russia, of course, has its own rich cultural heritage—think Dostoevsky to Solzhenitsyn—and there is no doubt that Ukraine and Russia share a number of common Slavic cultural roots, but it is also a fact that Ukraine has its own rich literary and artistic history.

With the invasion of Ukraine, its museums have been scrambling to rescue invaluable cultural artifacts. Museums have been shelled, some destroyed. As some have commented, the destruction of these artifacts amounts to a form of cultural cleansing. Jeremy Maron, curator of genocide at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is quoted by the Globe and Mail as saying;

“Putin views Ukraine not as an independent nation, but as a part of Russia that was stolen from Russian control. In his perspective, it seems like there is no such thing as Ukrainian culture, so the cultural artifacts are fake evidence of the fake Ukrainian culture.”

UNESCO has expressed its deep concern over the damage to cultural sites. There are seven UNESCO cultural sites in Ukraine including the 11th century St. Sophia Cathedral, that has been instrumental, according to UNESCO, in “the spread of Orthodox thought and the Orthodox faith in the Russian world from the 17th to the 19th century.” It is now under threat from Russian artillery shells and missiles. The Russians are shelling part of their own shared heritage.

Where this will end, (at least at time of writing), is frustratingly unclear. Ukrainians are both resisting and fleeing the carnage, especially women and children, leaving their men behind to fight. Russia’s ultimate end game is not yet clear, although the outcome for the people and culture of the Ukraine does not look positive. Many will flee, some no doubt to Canada and the US, which already host the second and third largest Ukrainian diasporas globally, 1.4 million and 1 million, respectively. (Russia is home to the largest number). Even if Russia installs some sort of puppet regime in Kyiv or attempts to reincorporate Ukraine into Russia, a Ukrainian identity and culture will survive and endure as it has for hundreds of years. And the message of what is really happening in Ukraine will reach the Russian people. Today, no one can block content forever.

Ultimately, Mr. Putin will fail. The Russian army cannot eliminate the soul of a people. At the moment, we are all Ukrainian.

© Hugh Stephens, 2022. All Rights Reserved.

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