Royal Canadian Mint Claims Copyright On One Cent Piece, Threatens Indie Musician Over Album Art

from the penny-for-your-thoughts dept

Recently, we learned that Canadian musician Dave Gunning ran into some copyright troubles regarding his latest album, No More Pennies. No, he did not use music or lyrics from any other artist without permission. What he did was something far worse, at least in the eyes of one organization. What he had the audacity to do was include images of the soon-to-be-retired Canadian penny.

When the Royal Canadian Mint caught wind of Dave's tribute album and the timely use of the penny in its artwork, it sent a legal threat to Dave stating that he was infringing the copyright of the Mint and that he must pay a royalty on each album sold. Of course, the Mint did decide to give him a break on this royalty by waving the fees on the first 2000 albums sold, but said he had to pay after that. That was quite generous, or so the Mint was quick to claim.

“We have helped this guy out by giving him a break,” Alex Reeves, communications manager for the Royal Canadian Mint, said Tuesday.

“Now that we have explained the rules and the policy, it’s very clear what the implications are for using the penny’s image. And we’re certainly being consistent in the applications of our policy for any for-profit use,” he said.

Dave, however, saw things a bit differently.

“It is pennies to them but is pretty substantial for me,” said Gunning, who won two East Coast Music Awards in 2011, adding “we really had no idea” the ode to the penny was going to land him in hot water.

I had to scratch my head for a bit on this little dispute. Here in the US, works of the government are automatically in the public domain and can be freely used by the public. In regards to currency, while it is illegal to create counterfeit currency, it is legal to duplicate the images of currency as long as it is clearly a fake. Things are not quite so clear cut in Canada. 

For the Canadian government, works it produces are covered by a Crown Copyright in which the government retains some control over the use. However, even this explanation might not be quite so cut and dry. As Canadian lawyer Howard Knopf explains:

To be clear, the album cover shown above does not infringe any so-called intellectual property rights of the mint because:

  • If there ever was copyright in the Canadian penny, which is doubtful, it has long since expired and the above album cover would not be infringing copyright in any event
  • The above album cover does not “use” or “adopt” the Canadian penny in any technical sense covered by the Trade-marks Act.

Someone over at the Mint should learn some basic facts about intellectual property law, This kind of thing makes people lose respect for IP law and for the credibility of government institutions. There’s nothing funny about that.

Knopf points out that the Mint has even attempted similar actions before, when the city of Toronto created an ad campaign which featured an image of the penny. Just as it was then, it is now: the penny, if it was ever covered by copyright, has long since entered the public domain. This is because Crown Copyright only lasts 50 years. This fact, and plenty of negative publicity, lead the Mint to drop its action against Toronto. 

Now, we learn that the Mint has turned tail and dropped its action against Dave too:

The mint did not only waive the fee for Mr. Gunning, but said it would also review its intellectual property policy to ensure that it’s fair.

“We recognize our policy as it is today may not consider the individual needs and circumstances of those who request the use of our images,” spokeswoman Christine Aquino said from Ottawa.

“We’re allowing [Gunning] to do this and we truly wish him well in his career.”

Perhaps this change of heart came about because those running the legal offices of the Mint were reminded that they don't have a solid claim on the copyright of the penny. Even if they did, as Knopf clearly pointed out, Dave's use of the penny in his album work is transformative and as such covered by fair dealing. Either way, Dave is happy to have this saga ended.

“Everything’s gonna taste better now. I’m gonna sleep better,” laughed Mr. Gunning, who said he was overwhelmed by the attention his story had generated across Canada and the United States.

“This all started very simply from the fact that I’ve got a wife and three kids and just want to be able to make a living, and felt that I had to stand up for that.”

All of this raises the question of why a government has any claim of copyright on its currency to begin with. In reality, to claim such a copyright makes no sense. If the concern is that people would attempt to print their own currency, that is what counterfeit laws are for. Otherwise, it seems to be an unneeded burden on the freedom of Canadians. 

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Comments on “Royal Canadian Mint Claims Copyright On One Cent Piece, Threatens Indie Musician Over Album Art”

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Gregg says:

GoC Idiots

This is embarrassing that the Government of Canada thinks that this is a law suit that would stick. It’ll get thrown out of the courts on the first attempt and Gunning should just sit back and allow them to try and sue him. If it were the case that an image of Canadian coin in a product breaks the copyright laws, there would be so many other law suits on the books. From the little glass covered coins sold in gift shops to the endless number of posters, post cards, magazine articles, novels, albums, movies…movies and movies out there. Just stupid that another Government Agency is jumping on the Copy Right Infringement band wagon.

Totally embarrassing to be a Canadian with this news.

Devils_Advocate (profile) says:

Scratching my head, too

You would think there would be more of this kind of trouble using the images of American money, as it is all, as I understand it, a product of The Federal Reserve (a 3rd party).

What happened with Dave gunning had to be coming from some ignorant dickwad. All through my lifetime, I’ve seen thousands of usages of our money’s images, none resulting in any such idiocy as this.

Even if there were some active copyright to worry about, I can’t see how it could be applied to the mere image of the currency, which would have to be considered a public symbol.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

GoC Idiots

They don’t care if the lawsuit sticks, they don’t have to win in the court of law. All they have to do is threaten to run the bills up for their victim so that they give in rather than go bankrupt.
Patent Trolls, Copyright Trolls, The Cartels all use this as a viable business model. They simply point out how much it will cost to prove them wrong, and that exceeds the resources of nearly every single one of their targets. They victim “settles” and the Troll feels more secure in their shakedown as they turn their ever hungry eye to the next big prize.

John Doe says:

The US should do this as well

Just think, if the US copyrighted their money, they could file infringement lawsuits against counterfeiters and not just put them in jail. If a $1 pirated song is worth nearly $2,000 in fines, a counterfeit $20 bill would be worth $40,000. Imagine what a duffel bag full of $20 go for! we would be out of debt in no time.

Anonymous Coward says:


“So when someone prints a counterfeit bank note, not only can they be arrested for counterfeiting/fraud, but also for copyright infringement?”

That’s ridiculous. They are arrested just for copyright infringement, obviously. I mean, the damage payments are so insane that they would be stupid not to try to make a mint out of the whole situation.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

now, wait a minute…
is the picture shown in this article the cover art for the CD in question ? ? ?
’cause if *that* is what they are bitching about, i simply don’t get it…
assuming it is the offending cover, i can’t tell if those coins are amerikan, canuckistan, or martian, from that shot…
dog damn, *some* otherwise useless bureaucrats must have a LOT of time on their hands…
world gone crazy…
art guerrilla
aka ann archy

kyle clements (profile) says:

During the copyright consultations that were held several years ago, where the government pretended to care about what Canadians wanted out of copyright reform, a big issue that took the government by surprize was strong support for the abolition of Crown Copyright.

They just don’t get it. They see it as a way of protecting Canadians, only “approved agencies” present the info, so we can “trust it”.

A lot of statistics and information is like this, making it very hard to collect and present information about my own damned country. If, for example I want to list the GDP from each year over the last hundred years and compare it to which party was in power to get a sense of who is better for the economy, I can’t find it anywhere. If I want to do the same for The States, after 5 minutes on Google, I have everything I need.

How is this helping Canadians?
The public paid for it, the public should own it.

Lord of the Files says:

GoC Idiots

What I’m wondering is how this is a copyrighted image belonging to the Mint, seeing as it’s just a photo of pennies and not of the image on the pennies themselves. My thinking is that the image as stamped on the coin is what they can copyright, not the penny itself which the public technically owns. A penny in my pocket belongs to me. The image on it is not mine, but the penny is. Thus I can only really see a problem if someone reproduced just the image on the penny and not the penny itself at all. Or am I just splitting hairs?

DannyB (profile) says:

Currency SHOULD be protected by Copyright

Currency SHOULD be protected by Copyright

That would greatly help fight counterfitting.

Just think about it for a second.

Copyright Infringement is an offense punished far more harshly than murder, violent assault, robbery, burglary, etc.

Using Copyright against counterfitters would be like using Tax Evasion code against Capone.

Tunnen (profile) says:

Not saying I agree with the lawsuit or the copyright or anything but…

Since the mint uses a different cast/mould/stamp for coins approximately every other decade, wouldn’t the copyright be applicable to that version? Like the 1920?1941 penny is different in metal composition and design than the 1982?1996 penny which is also different than the 2000?current penny. So wouldn’t the 2000 penny design be covered until 2050?

Same thing happens with the bills, they change the artwork and security features every decade or so, like our new polymer bills.

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