Wednesday, October 21, 2015


A few years ago I was contacted by someone in Cambridge Bay who had made a picture which was showing up on the internet.  He wasn’t too concerned that people were showing his work – except in one case where a nasty racist website was using the print to illustrate “primitive peoples’ art”.  I was able to get the racist website delisted from Google by pointing out there was a copyright breach.  No need to argue human rights, bigotry or anything that complicated.

Copyright is a legal right granting the creator of original work exclusive rights for its use and distribution.  The idea behind copyright is that people would not, for example, spend years writing a novel if they could not be sure of getting paid by the people who read the book – copyright acts to encourage people to create unique and original works safe in the knowledge their work will be protected.   The exclusive rights given by copyright are not absolute; copyright does not last forever and there are some limited exceptions allowing use without permission.

Copyright exists as soon as an original work is created.  You do not have to register something in order to have copyright protection.  Copyright in Canada automatically exists upon the creation of a work.  Copyright exists in a wide array of forms of expression including books (fiction or non-fiction), literary works (poems, songs, memoirs, how to manuals), films, choreography, musical compositions, sound recordings, paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, computer software, radio and television broadcasts.  The things copyright covers are sometimes called intellectual property – meaning they are valuable items created by the intellect.  Pretty well everything that is an original work of the mind is covered by copyright. Copyright covers both published and unpublished work; so a poem you wrote and left in a desk draw is just as protected by copyright as a book published by Arctic College.

As mentioned, copyright does not last forever.  In general,  copyright lasts for the life of the creator, the remainder of the calendar year in which the creator dies, and for fifty years following the end of that calendar year.  While some famous author’s work still has commercial value fifty years after they die for most purposes a fifty year copyright period is more than sufficient to protect intellectual property.

Another exception to copyright is something called fair dealing.  The idea behind fair dealing is that some uses of another person’s work, even if subject to copyright, need to be allowed for society to function.  So you can use another person’s copyright protected material for the purpose of research, private study, education, review or news reporting, provided that what you do with the work is ‘fair’.
What is “fair” will depend on the circumstances.  Some of the factors to consider when deciding if a use is “fair” are:

o The reason for the dealing – Was the use for commercial or research / educational purposes?
o The amount of the dealing – How much was copied?
o The nature of the dealing – Was it a single use or ongoing? How widely was it distributed?
o Alternatives to the dealing - Was the work necessary for the end result? Could a different work have been used instead?
o The nature of the work – Was there public interest involved? Was it previously unpublished?
o The impact of the dealing on the original work – Does the use compete with the market of the original work?

As you can see the concept of fair dealing is complicated.  Sometimes you read that you can, for example, copy up to ten percent of a book and distribute it in class for teaching purposes.  That suggestion (which is quite common) is almost certainly wrong.  Fair dealing cannot be reduced to rough percentages – it depends on the specific situation.

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