As Creator’s Rights Face New Challenges, Canada Needs to Keep Pace with International Developments

Image by Greg Altmann/Pixabay

This blog post appeared first in Open Canada, the journal of the Canadian International Council, on November 20, 2023.

In the past few weeks there has been a flurry of activity with respect to international regulation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) such as the Bletchley Declaration spearheaded by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence signed by US President Biden, as well as the G7 AI Code of Conduct. Canada has been involved in some of these initiatives but will be affected whether or not it participates, including aspects of the AI issue dealing with protection of intellectual property, specifically creator’s rights protected through copyright laws. Indeed, there is a huge emerging issue related to whether the indiscriminate scraping of copyrighted content by AI developers to train their algorithms is legal under existing copyright laws, plus whether the output of content generated by AI can be legally protected under accepted copyright norms. 

When it comes to copyright challenges today, Canada has just launched a public consultation on this issue (”Copyright in the Age of Generative Artificial Intelligence”) as part of the process of updating Canada’s copyright framework in the digital age. The implications of the extent to which AI and copyright are compatible illustrate the interdependent nature of national copyright protection regimes, notwithstanding the fact that each nation interprets and applies copyright law in slightly different ways. The key point here is that countries that are too lax in protecting their creative sectors could see their copyright-protected cultural industries suffer negative economic impact; countries that are overly protective could see investment in AI innovation flow to countries with lower copyright standards. Whatever international consensus emerges and whatever framework to regulate AI is developed, whether it be OECD guidelines or a more formal arrangement, Canada will need to be a party. Such is the nature of international issues these days, with respect to digital issues, copyright and intellectual property generally. 

Canada is already bound by a number of international commitments with respect to its application of copyright, and these will undoubtedly have an impact on future and long overdue revisions to Canada’s Copyright Act. For example, the current international framework for protection of copyrighted works (books, films, music, performances, television and streaming content, broadcasts and other forms of copyright protected works such as software, paintings, drawings, photographs, etc.) is embedded in the TRIPS Agreement (WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) that was a part of the establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1995. Canada, was of course, a party to TRIPS. With respect to copyright, TRIPS incorporates the terms of the Berne Convention, with the added benefit of a dispute-settlement mechanism to resolve disputes, something lacking in Berne. However, the WTO’s dispute settlement process is currently suspended owing to the inability to appoint new members to the WTO’s Appellate Body because of US opposition. The Berne Convention of 1886 (along with its periodic updates over the years) remains the bedrock of international copyright cooperation. 

When it comes to copyright legislation, it is generally accepted that the first modern copyright law is the Statute of Anne, passed by the British Parliament in 1710. The stated purpose of legislation was for “the encouragement of learning”. For the first time it gave authors (or those to whom they assigned their rights) rather than printers the exclusive right to print or reprint their books. The period of protection lasted for an initial period of fourteen years. This provision was included in the US Constitution “to promote the progress of science and useful arts…”, again with an initial period of protection of fourteen years. 

During the 18th and most of the 19th century, copyright laws were applied to nationals only of the country concerned or to works first published in a that country. Thus, British copyright applied in Britain (and the British Empire) to British authors but works by nationals of other countries could be freely reprinted in Britain unless first published there. The same applied in the US and other countries. Attempts were made to negotiate bilateral treaties under which reciprocal protection would be afforded the nationals the two countries concerned, but this resulted in a confusing patchwork quilt of protection. Eventually, under the leadership of the French novelist Victor Hugo, in 1886 the first international copyright treaty, the Berne Convention, was signed. Only eight countries ratified it initially, (Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Tunisia). Notably absent was the United States which did not join Berne until 1989. Today, over 180 countries are members and some economies (like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao) that are not accessory states to Berne but are members of the WTO) also apply its terms.  

When Britain joined Berne in 1886, the Convention’s provisions applied to all parts of the British Empire, including Canada, as Canada was not at that time a fully sovereign state. Nonetheless, copyright was a power conferred on the new dominion established in 1867 and in 1868 Canada enacted its first Copyright Act. This ambiguity led to conflicts with the imperial government, and on several occasions Canada tried to exit Berne, before acceding in its own right in 1928. Canada also tried to pass legislation favouring Canadian works over those from Britain, only to have the legislation vetoed by the Governor-General. 

One of the issues was Canada’s desire to promote the Canadian printing industry. British works were protected by copyright in Canada but Canadian printers could normally not get printing rights from British publishers, despite the high cost of the imported British books. However, in the US, British works were freely printed without permission (“pirated”) because US copyright law did not protect British works. Canadian booksellers, instead of importing the expensive British editions of Charles Dickens and other British writers, would import the much cheaper pirated US editions. This was technically illegal, but the border was long and leaky. British publishers tried to pressure the British government to lean on Canada to block importation of their works printed in the US, but with limited success. 

Just as British works were not protected in the US, nor were US works protected in Britain or other countries such as Canada. Thus, Canadian printers freely reprinted Canadian editions of US works by writers such as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), without permission or payment of royalties. That was legal at the time but what was not legal was the resale of these Canadian editions back into the US, a frequent occurrence. Thus, Clemens famously complained about “Canadian pirates” and tried to publish some of his works first in Montreal so he could claim British and Canadian copyright. Finally in 1891, the US agreed to respect the copyrights of other nationalities but only on condition that their works be typeset in the US. 

For many years before it finally joined Berne in 1989, US publishers sought to obtain the benefits of Berne’s widespread international protection (applicable only to acceding parties) by simultaneously publishing works in the US and in Canada, through their Canadian publishing subsidiaries. This became known as “the back door to Berne”. Berne establishes a number of basic principles and commitment to minimum levels of protection by acceding states. For example, under Berne no formal registration is required to establish copyright provided that the fundamental requirements of originality, nationality and fixation are met, although registration can be provided as an option as is the case in both Canada and the United States. In the US registration is required if a legal action is taken to enforce a copyright. Berne also requires a minimum term of protection of the life of the “author” (meaning the creator of the work, even a visual work) plus 50 years after the author’s demise, although countries are free to establish a longer period of protection. The US, EU, and a number of other states, now including Canada, have extended the duration of copyright protection to “life plus seventy”, with a twenty-year extension allowing an author’s estate, or those who have acquired the rights, to have a longer period during which to exploit the work. 

A key principle under Berne is “national treatment”. That is, each country is required to apply the provisions of the Convention within its area of jurisdiction to both nationals and non-nationals on an equitable basis consistent with Berne’s minimum standards. Today Canada and the US are both parties not only to Berne but also to many of the myriad of specialized copyright treaties, such as the “Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled”, which establishes exceptions to copyright for visually disabled people. 

It is not only international treaties that impose certain commitments on Canada, but also bilateral agreements such as the updated NAFTA, the CUSMA (called the USMCA in the US). One of the commitments that Canada made in CUSMA was to extend its term of copyright protection to align with that in the US. The implementing legislation for this commitment has now been enacted and the longer term of copyright protection came into effect in Canada on December 30  2022. However, the longer term applies only to works still under copyright protection. Any works that entered the public domain prior to that date do not benefit.  

Given recent Canadian government initiatives, such as Bill C-11 (the Online Streaming Act) and C-18 (Online News Act), both of which will require US companies ranging from Netflix and Disney to Facebook and Google to contribute financially to production of Canadian content, in the case of streaming, or in the case of C-18 and news content, to Canadian journalism, one could well ask whether the US will try to intervene on behalf of these large US content and tech companies. After all, one of the basic principles of CUSMA is national treatment for US companies in Canada, and vice versa, with specified exceptions. 

One of these exceptions is the so-called cultural exception, Article 32.6 of CUSMA, which relates to what could be called “copyright industries”. This article allows Canada to take actions to protect culture in ways that would be inconsistent with the Agreement but for the exception. Film and television production, as well as the publication of magazines, periodicals and newspapers, and radio, TV and cable broadcasting, are all included in the definition of a cultural industry. However, Article 32.6 has a sting in its tail. It allows the other parties (the US or Mexico) to take equivalent measures of retaliation in any sector of the economy if the cultural exception is invoked. In effect this means that if Canada uses the cultural exception to justify measures against US (or Mexican) companies, other sectors of the Canadian economy could suffer the consequences. As such, it is a poison pill, which explains why it is very improbable it will ever be used. Instead, if there is a US trade challenge to these pieces of legislation – which is unlikely given the range of US interests involved, (some of which support the legislation) – the Canadian government will not invoke the cultural exception but will argue the measures it is implementing are not aimed at US companies per se, but rather at specific commercial entities that have an excessive degree of competitive market power. Thus, there is no violation of the national treatment principle. At the present time, the only companies that fit the definition happen to be American, but in future the definition could extend to European companies or Chinese entities like TikTok or, potentially, Canadian companies.

All this just goes to show that no nation is an island, whether it concerns specialized areas like copyright or broader issues like AI harms. Copyright has adapted over the years to technological change, with AI being but the most recent example. Likewise, Canada has adjusted to the international framework regulating copyright, to its advantage and to the benefit of its creative industries, and it will need to continue to do so in future.

(c) Hugh Stephens, 2023. All Rights Reserved

AI’s Copyright Challenges: Searching for an International Consensus

Image: Shutterstock

This has been a busy couple of weeks for national and international declarations on Artificial Intelligence (AI). First the G7 issued its International Code of Conduct for Advanced AI Systems on October 30.  The same day US President Biden signed the Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence, followed by the Bletchley Declaration at the conclusion of the “AI Summit” hosted by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, a couple of days later. Meanwhile, the EU’s AI Act is being touted by its sponsor as a potential model for AI legislation in other parts of the world (although its enactment is currently bogged down in the trilogue process between the Commission, EU Council and European Parliament). Notable was the fact that the US Executive Order, a wide-ranging framework document covering many aspects of the AI issue, effectively “scooped” the Brits by a day or so, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to highlight steps the US had just announced when speaking to the press at Bletchley.

The declarations all addressed many of the concerns surrounding AI, ranging from safety and security, fraud and cybersecurity to privacy, equity and civil rights to protecting consumers, supporting workers and promoting innovation. A key issue only lightly touched on in these declarations, however, was that of AI’s intersection with copyright. This was a missed opportunity to come to grips with a major concern regarding how AI will be able to co-exist with copyright law. (The EU’s draft AI Act includes a transparency requirement to  “document and make publicly available a sufficiently detailed summary of the use of training data protected under copyright law“, Article 28(b) 4(c).)

AI faces two significant challenges when it comes to copyright protection. First, with respect to the inputs that AI developers use to populate their models to produce generative AI, there is the unresolved question as to whether the free use of copyrighted content violates copyright law by making unauthorized reproductions. There are currently a number of lawsuits underway in the US examining this fundamental question. Many creator groups, such as the News Media Alliance in the United States argue that “the pervasive copying of expressive works to train and fuel generative artificial intelligence systems is copyright infringement and not a fair use”.

Second, with respect to outputs, the work generated by AI has two challenges in terms of obtaining the benefits of copyright protection. If its inputs are infringing, that clearly casts doubt on the legality of the derivative outputs. In addition, there is the problem posed by the current position of the US Copyright Office (and most other copyright authorities) that to be copyright-protected a work must be an original human creation. After the infamous Monkey Selfie case, the USCO issued an interpretive bulletin reiterating the need for human authorship and, to date, it has hewed to this line when examining applications for copyright registration from authors claiming works produced by AI.

The G7 Declaration was broad, covering a wide range of issues related to AI. It included a reference to the copyright issue under Point 11, “Implement appropriate data input measures and protections for personal data and intellectual property”, specifically stating that, “Organizations are encouraged to implement appropriate safeguards, to respect rights related to privacy and intellectual property, including copyright-protected content.” This is hardly prescriptive language, but it is a beginning. I understand that the creative community had to fight hard to get this wording included, but it is at least recognition of the issue.

With respect to the US Administration’s Executive Order, the issue of copyright was also acknowledged, but in a somewhat backhanded way. Section 5.2 (Promoting Innovation), addresses copyright as part of clarifying issues “related to AI and inventorship of patentable subject matter”. Paragraph (c)(iii) declares that the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the US Patent and Trademark Office shall;

within 270 days of the date of this order or 180 days after the United States Copyright Office of the Library of Congress publishes its forthcoming AI study that will address copyright issues raised by AI, whichever comes later, consult with the Director of the United States Copyright Office and issue recommendations to the President on potential executive actions relating to copyright and AI. The recommendations shall address any copyright and related issues discussed in the United States Copyright Office’s study, including the scope of protection for works produced using AI and the treatment of copyrighted works in AI training.”  

This is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the need for respecting the copyright of those who, willingly or not, provide the raw material for the voracious AI machines that are busy scooping up creator’s content, but it is nonetheless an acknowledgment that there’s an issue that needs addressing.

The US Copyright Office (USCO) launched its study on Artificial Intelligence and Copyright on August 30 of this year “to help assess whether legislative or regulatory steps in this area are warranted”. By the end of October, the USCO had already received more than 10,000 submissions. The comments range from statements by AI developers as to why they shouldn’t be required to pay for copyrighted content used as inputs in developing their models (while of course claiming they should enjoy the benefits of copyright protection for their AI generated outputs), to submissions by creator organizations that argue, among other things, that the ingestion of copyrighted material by AI systems is not categorically fair use and that AI companies should license works they ingest. Licensing their content to AI companies as an additional revenue stream is precisely what major media companies are currently engaged in.

If the US, currently and for the foreseeable future the leading country in development of AI, is thrashing around trying to address this question, one can imagine the process taking place elsewhere. Will the need to set standards inevitably lead to some form of international consensus for the regulation of AI, including the role of copyrighted content? I think it will be essential. Countries that are too lax in protecting their creative sectors will see their copyright-protected cultural industries suffer negative economic consequences; countries that are overly protective of content are worried that investment in AI innovation will flow to countries with lower copyright standards, becoming a race to the bottom for creators.

The UK government has already felt the pinch of this dilemma. In a misguided attempt to gain a head start in the AI development race, about a year and a half ago the British government unveiled a proposal sponsored by the UK Intellectual Property Office (of all entities!) to create an unlimited text and data mining (TDM) exception to copyright, at the same time stripping rights-holders of their ability to license their contact for TDM purposes, or to contract or opt out. In the words of the discussion paper accompanying the draft legislation, in order to reduce the time needed to obtain permission from rightsholders and to eliminate the need to pay license fees;

The Government has decided to introduce a new copyright and database right exception which allows TDM for any purpose …Rights holders will no longer be able to charge for UK licences for TDM and will not be able to contract or opt-out of the exception.”

This outrageous attempted expropriation of intellectual property rights aroused a storm of protest from the UK’s vibrant cultural sector, a backlash that found resonance in Parliament. As a result, the British government backed off, and withdrew the proposed legislation. However, one wonders if the stake has truly been driven through the heart of this hi-tech gambit or whether, like Dracula, this misguided policy will rise again. UK Parliamentary Committee Shoots Down Copyright Exemption for AI Developers–But is it Really Dead”? Certainly, British publishers are not convinced the content grab is over. According to the Guardian, they have just issued a statement urging the UK government, “to help end the unfettered, opaque development of artificial intelligence tools that use copyright-protected works with impunity.”

Canada has just launched a public consultation on AI and Copyright, (”Copyright in the Age of Generative Artificial Intelligence”), and others will be doing the same. In Australia, Google, responding to a review of copyright enforcement, urged the government to relax copyright laws to allow artificial intelligence to mine websites for information across the internet (even though this wasn’t the topic of the enquiry). Meanwhile, the Attorney-General’s Department has been conducting several roundtables to explore the issue, the most recent being at the end of August. In that roundtable, representatives of the Australian creative community called for greater transparency around how copyright material is being used by AI developers during the input training and output process.

And so, the search for the right formula goes on. It will not be easy to find the elusive international consensus, especially since at the moment (with the exception of China) this is an issue on the agenda only of the so-called Global North.

How the heavy-hitters will deal with the issue of AI, including its intellectual property dimensions, remains to be seen. There could be something as relatively powerless as OECD Guidelines that emerge or regulation could go a lot further, including the establishment of some kind of international agency with the “authority” to regulate in the area of AI, as suggested by Elon Musk and others. However, as we have seen with every international organization created to date, whether it be the UN, World Trade Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, or any of the myriad other supra-national structures created in recent years, the authority granted them is only as good as the commitment of its signatory states. It makes sense to harmonize and set broad international standards for the way in which AI is created and used, but it will be a long road to get there.

The challenge of how copyright can intersect with AI–to the mutual benefit of both–has still be worked out. The courts are playing a role, as is technology, evolving business models, and legislation. Society needs to find the sweet spot where both human creation and technological advancement in the form of AI can co-exist for the benefit of society at large. Despite recent pronouncements, the search continues.

© Hugh Stephens, 2023. All Rights Reserved.

This post has been updated to include reference to the ongoing roundtable process underway in Australia under the aegis of the Attorney-General’s Department to explore, inter alia, questions of AI and copyright.