The Nobel Prize for Bob Dylan: Songwriters Rejoice!


The news that Sweden’s Nobel Prize selection committee has awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to noted songwriter Bob Dylan is exciting news. The Nobel Prize has a long pedigree and the prize for literature has previously been awarded to such noted authors as William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Steinbeck, Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, Jean-Paul Sartre, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemmingway, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and many other familiar names, and in more recent years to Alice Munro, Patrick Modiano, and Svetlana Alexievich. The prize itself dates back to 1895 when industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, left most of the wealth in his will to establish the prizes the first of which were awarded in several categories, including Literature, in 1901.

The selection of Dylan is the first time that a songwriter has been so honoured and, if any validation was actually necessary, marks the elevation of songwriting into the category of serious literature. Literature contributes in many ways to our collective psyche, to our sense of cultural awareness and to our understanding of the society around us. Great literature documents changing public attitudes and mores and acts as a social commentator on our contemporary world. Great songwriting does no less and the contribution that Dylan has made to our collective sense of social awareness is significant. Although a “pre-boomer”, he has been the chronicler of the boomer generation—it’s questioning of the established order—and the changes that this generation has seen and experienced. According to the selection committee, Dylan was awarded the prize for “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

The award is not without controversy, just like Dylan himself. While there was some carping as to whether the genre deserved the accolade, Rolling Stone’s position was quite clear, with a headline proclaiming “Why Bob Dylan Deserves his Nobel Prize”. Among the reasons cited was his role in “inventing ways to make songs do what they hadn’t done before”. As of the date of writing, no-one knows what Dylan thinks of the award because he has refrained from commenting on it, and the selection committee has not heard directly from him. Clearly they didn’t consult him in advance as to whether he would accept the award.

The prestigious award to Dylan should be celebrated by all songwriters, and indeed by all who value the many varied forms of creativity that make our lives so rich. Music and songs have long been a medium of expression to express our joys and pains, our sorrows and our happiness; we have used this medium through the years to vent our frustrations and to celebrate our successes. Music and songwriting is a corner-stone in the edifice of the copyright industries; it’s a key part of the pantheon of creativity that is protected and encouraged by copyright.

There will be naysayers and critics of the Dylan award, but with no disrespect to the authors of fiction and non-fiction who have over the years made the Nobel Prize for Literature one of the most prestigious awards in the literary field, your turn will come again. Let’s give the songwriters their place in the sun this year. We are all better for it.

© Hugh Stephens 2016. All Rights Reserved.

The Great Scoop: Feeding Google’s AI Machine


Oh Google! You’ve done it again! You have taken a good idea—one that could help creativity–and once again blotted your copybook by antagonizing the creative community you profess to serve. Yet again you have turned a blind eye to the rights of writers and creators to serve your own ends, all in the name of “progress”. First it was the digitizing of all those books in public libraries—without the approval of the authors of those works. Then, once the works were digitized you indexed them by putting up large excerpts on the web for free use without as much as a “by your leave” to the copyright holders. While this could be seen as somewhat akin to a digital version of flipping through a book in a library, looking at excerpts, there is a big difference because a) the library has purchased the book and b) the library’s users are all pre-qualified in some way, as residents or students for example. I know that this “transformative use” has been ruled to be within the four corners of fair use by the US courts, but it doesn’t mean that it is morally right. Continue reading “The Great Scoop: Feeding Google’s AI Machine”

Copyright Review in Canada: Myths and Facts


The Need for Regular Copyright Review

Five years after the introduction of the Copyright Modernization Act (Bill C-11) in 2012 under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, preparations are being made for the statutory five year review in late 2017 by the relatively new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau. The 2012 Act, which brought Canada’s copyright laws into the digital age and implemented legal changes required to give effect to Canada’s accession to the WIPO Internet treaties, satisfied some copyright stakeholders and dissatisfied others, as is often the case with legislative change. New fair dealing exceptions for education were introduced, a move that has severely damaged the Canadian educational publishing industry, and which many publishers and authors would like to see repealed or narrowed. Some of the new provisions were phased in and it is only relatively recently that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been legally required to forward infringement notices to those on their network. This system is still being “broken in”, and has suffered some teething pains. Given the lengthy delay that occurred prior to the passage of C-11 (Canada signed the WIPO Internet treaties in 1997 but it took fifteen years before implementing legislation was adopted), a legally mandated legislative review every five years is a good idea. In the fast moving digital age, there will always be a need to take stock of how well the regulatory framework responds to the real world of consumers, creators and industry. Continue reading “Copyright Review in Canada: Myths and Facts”

The Indian High Court Decision on Delhi University’s Copy Shop: A Pyrrhic Victory


In a milestone decision on September 16 Mr. Justice R. S. Endlaw (what a great name for a judge; reminds me of my high school typing teacher, Mr. Keys) of the Indian High Court, in the case of publishers Oxford University Press (OUP), Cambridge University Press (CUP) and Taylor & Francis versus Rameshwari Photocopying Services and Delhi University, ruled that the photocopying of course packs by Rameshwari does not constitute copyright violation under India’s Copyright Act owing to the fair dealing exception for education. The decision vacated a stay order imposed in 2013 restraining the copy shop’s activities. The decision has generated considerable commentary in India, almost all of it supporting the right of students to photocopy with virtually no restriction because of their straightened economic circumstances and painting it as a “David and Goliath” case. There is also an Indian “us” versus “them” odour to this, with the “them” being western publishing houses. There is jubilation on the part of both the student advocacy group that joined the case, as well as a group of academics that supported the university’s position. But this could be a pyrrhic victory over the long term.

The publishers argued that Section 52 of the Act, which provides an exception for education (the exact wording is that the reproduction of a work by a “teacher/ pupil in the course of instruction” does not constitute infringement), should be more narrowly interpreted so as to disallow widespread institutional copying of copyrighted material from textbooks. The judge reached his decision despite the existence of reprographic licensing services (which would have legitimized copying by Delhi University students for a nominal fee). He also appears to have imposed no limits on the amount of copying as long as it is done for educational purposes. The university argued that it was not obliged to pay the IRRO, the Indian Reprographic Rights Organization, for access to copyrighted materials because all the copying fell under the education exception, and was thus a fair dealing.

After the court’s decision, the publishers issued the following statement;

We brought this case to protect authors, publishers and students from the potential effects on the Indian academic and educational book market caused by the widespread creation and distribution of unlicensed course packs by a copy shop operating from within the premises of the [Delhi] University, where a legitimate and affordable licensing scheme is already in place. It is unfortunate that the court’s decision today could undermine the availability of original content for the benefit of students and teachers.”

That of course is the crux of the issue. What is the balance between providing uncompensated access to copyrighted material for specified purposes, such as education, and the need to provide authors and publishers the incentive and wherewithal to continue to produce new content? Already it seems some are starting to realize that a decision of this nature, popular as it may be, is not a silver bullet. An editorial in the influential daily The Hindu, makes the point that “the verdict may justly raise the concern whether conferring unrestricted reprographic rights on academic institutions will drive reputed publishers out of the field of education…If reputed publications feel that there is insufficient copyright protection and back out of educational publishing in this country, it will be equally injurious to the public interest”. They are right.

It is also hard to understand how the judge came to the conclusion that unlimited copying does not run afoul of the three-step test of the Berne Convention and the TRIPs provisions of the WTO, to which India subscribes. (The three-step test states that limitations should apply only in certain special cases; should not conflict with the normal exploitation of the work; and should not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author/right-holder.) How unlimited copying–even for educational purposes–does not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the rights holders is hard to understand, but India has always been good at interpreting its international obligations in unusual ways.

While the Delhi University case may seem to be a throwback to the days when photocopying on campuses was rampant, and brings back memories of the Kinko’s and Michigan Document Services cases in the US in the 1990s (where both were found liable for copyright infringement for commercially photocopying course-packs), it is in fact another variant of a common theme being played out these days in various countries. Textbook copying used to be ubiquitous in most of Asia and I well remember the “poksa” copy shops that used to be set up at the entrance to every university in Korea, ready to photocopy and even bind books of every description. Even today, that phenomenon has not entirely disappeared, as is evident from the IIPA’s section 301 filings on Taiwan and China, but in many cases technology has made the copy shop go away as digital copies have filled the void.

Not so in India which, despite its reputation as an IT hub for back office work, still operates as if it were back in the days of the Raj in many instances. Paper is still king in India, from dusty files in bureaucrat’s offices to physical copies of books in libraries. Access to the limited supply of textbooks is one of the key issues in Indian education (digital copies being generally unavailable), and it is interesting to note that one of the rationales for allowing photocopying cited by Mr. Justice Endlaw was his view that photocopying is a substitute for the transcribing by hand from books that he experienced as a student. In doing so he took an expansive view of the definition in the Act that allows a teacher or pupil in the course of instruction to make a copy, extending the right to a copy shop on campus licensed by (and apparently acting on behalf of) the university, stating that it would be unfair to deny students the right to use technology.

What is happening in India is a hard-copy version of the digital struggle between publishers and educational institutions in other jurisdictions, such as the US and Canada, although without the apparent limitation of copying thresholds that apply elsewhere. Indian commentators have referenced the ongoing saga of Cambridge University Press vs Patton in the US where the question of digital course-packs has been under litigation (with Georgia State University being the defendant). What is the threshold for copying beyond which a fair use or fair dealing defence will not be sustainable? The issue is also currently the subject of a major court case in Canada, Access Copyright vs York University, where the question of fair dealing copying thresholds, unilaterally declared by various educational institutions, is among the issues under dispute. I have previously written on this case, pointing out the extent of the damage inflicted on educational publishing, and consequently on Canadian culture, by the decision of most educational institutions in Canada to cease to obtain licenses from Access Copyright.

India faces many challenges, among them the need to expand educational opportunities within the country. However at the same time, it needs to encourage the production and dissemination of knowledge domestically. If its education model is to rip off content from overseas publishers without regard for the consequences, not only will domestic editions and production of local books dry up, India will risk perpetuating a colonial status intellectually. That presumably is not what modern Indians want. Ubiquitous and unrestricted copying by academic institutions and their proxies is hardly the way to promote a domestic knowledge-based economy.

It will likely not be long before the digital version of the Delhi University decision will be before the courts in India. An unfortunate precedent has already been set. There must be a way to strike a better balance so that Indian students, and students everywhere, can have reasonable access to the materials they need for learning while providing a reasonable return to those who labour to produce those materials. If the publishers in India appeal the Endlaw decision, the outcome could be significant.

© Hugh Stephens, 2016. All Rights Reserved.


Update: The Delhi High Court has agreed to hear an appeal from the publishers against the decision to allow students at Delhi University to copy course packs. The hearing will be held on November 29.



When Does Inspiration become Infringement? The Impact on Copyright


What is it about songwriters, musicians and copyright? Lately there has been an explosion of copyright infringement cases with bands, songwriters and artists accusing each other of stealing lyrics, riffs, parts of arrangements, melodies, harmonies and what have you. The high profile cases have involved such well known groups as Led Zeppelin, Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande and Ed Sheeran. In Sheeran’s case he is accused of taking key parts of a 1973 Marvin Gaye song, and is also being sued by two songwriters over his track Photograph. The plaintiffs claim that the chorus of Sheeran’s track contains no less than 39 identical notes with their song Amazing and that the chord structures are very close. Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood have just had accusations of copyright infringement against them over their hit country song Remind Me dismissed after a three year process. The nub of the issue was the use of the phrase “remind me” repeatedly in both the Paisley/Underwood song and another Remind Me song written by the plaintiff. The judge ruled that the phrase was used quite differently in the two pieces. Continue reading “When Does Inspiration become Infringement? The Impact on Copyright”

To Link or Not to Link?: A Sensible and Balanced Decision by the European Court


To link or not to link? And what to link to? That is the (copyright) question. (With apologies to the Bard). The question of whether unauthorized linking to copyrighted works constitutes copyright infringement is not new. It has been raised in a number of court cases globally involving alleged commercial infringement by content aggregators providing deep and shallow links to various websites containing copyrighted content. The aggregators then monetize the final, collated product. It is generally accepted that linking per se does not constitute infringement, but it gets more complicated when the link is to what I will loosely call “pirated content”. Continue reading “To Link or Not to Link?: A Sensible and Balanced Decision by the European Court”

The TPP (and its Copyright Provisions): There’s still a Chance

Source: wikimedia commons

Will the Lame Duck Waddle?

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) may be a political pariah in the current US Presidential election, with both Mrs. Clinton (who ironically was Secretary of State at the time it was being negotiated) and Mr. Trump condemning it, despite endorsement from a wide range of business groups, but at least it still has the support of the Obama Administration. President Obama has reaffirmed his support for the agreement and has indicated that his Administration will go all out to try to get it ratified by Congress in this fall’s “lame-duck” session. If the TPP is not ratified before the new Congress elected in November takes office in early 2017 it will either be dead, or at the very least frozen in limbo, for a considerable period no matter who wins the White House. If the US does not ratify the agreement, it cannot come into force as there is a requirement that prior to implementation it must be ratified by at least six countries representing 85 percent of the total GDP of participating economies (2013 numbers). In effect, this gives both the US and Japan a veto over the entry into force of the agreement they have both signed. Continue reading “The TPP (and its Copyright Provisions): There’s still a Chance”