Did One-Sided Legal Advice Lead To The Terrible Copyright Deal For Canadian Universities?

from the it-certainly-doesn't-look-good dept

In the ongoing saga of collection society Access Copyright's negotiations with Canadian universities, one question comes up again and again: why? The Universities of Toronto and Western Ontario, and now the AUCC, which represents schools across the country, have all accepted terrible copyright clearance deals that see fees increasing when they should be going down, and that are full of onerous restrictions and highly questionable rights claims. Multiple observers have pointed out that the universities and the AUCC have an extremely strong fair dealing argument that they could take to the Copyright Board to push for much better terms—but instead they negotiated these lopsided agreements, and the AUCC abandoned its fight at the board. Nothing about these deals seems to be in the best interest of students, educators or schools. So why were they accepted so readily?

There's one glaring problem with the situation that's impossible to ignore, though it has mostly only been mentioned in passing: the lawyers. The AUCC was represented by Glen Bloom, and the University of Toronto was advised by Casey Chisick—both prominent Canadian copyright lawyers with a history of acting for clients who are against generous fair dealing provisions. Both Bloom and Chisick argued for narrow interpretations of fair dealing during a series of important Supreme Court cases last year. Both lawyers have also acted as lobbyists for the entertainment and publishing industries, and Chisick is actively registered as a lobbyist for the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency. Chisick also expressed his own views on the need for stronger copyright laws two years ago in the Globe & Mail, and this year in the Financial Post.

In short, these are both lawyers who have spent a lot more time working against fair dealing than for it, now acting for clients who badly need a strong fair dealing argument.

This alone is not necessarily so crazy. In law, it's often prudent to get a lawyer who has experience on the other side. Although it may seem like a conflict of interest on the surface, it's probably not a breach of professional ethics. However, even setting aside those questions, the fact remains: U of T and the AUCC, working with these lawyers, failed to assert their fair dealing rights to the degree that many observers think they could and should have. It certainly seems like, for whatever reason, they got bad advice.

Perhaps copyright is not something where lawyers can easily "switch sides". For example, in employment law, firms usually specialize on either the employer or employee side of things, and rarely jump back and forth. If the Access Copyright deals are any indication, copyright may need to be treated the same way: so many of its details (especially fair dealing) are open to interpretation and debate that the philosophical gap between the two sides is huge, and it's difficult if not impossible for a lawyer to effectively argue for both. Moreover, it is a minefield for genuine conflicts of interest: if a lawyer has an ongoing client relationship with a copyright collective, they have a strong incentive not to argue for fair dealing, since any pro-fair-dealing ruling makes their own job harder and reduces their other client's income.

Why did U of T and the AUCC not seek out lawyers who were prepared to make the argument they needed? Why did they accept these terrible deals despite multiple experts telling them they could do better? Why didn't their lawyers tell them that, under the current Supreme Court rulings on fair dealing, they have a powerful argument for lower fees? The whole situation is raising a lot of whys, and students and faculty across the country are starting to want answers. The deadline for universities to indicate their "intention to sign" the AUCC model license has passed was pushed to May 15th, but it's still not clear what that even means, and with resistance to the agreement growing, this deal might not be as done as Access Copyright and the AUCC want it to be.


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  1. identicon
    Lisa, 2 May 2012 @ 6:35am

    Re: What do they teach?

    As someone involved with the supposed consulting group for one of these Universities, I can tell you that there were 2 academics in the group with specialties in Copyright in addition to the University lawyer (no specialization). We strongly opposed the tarriff. Both grad and undergrad societies sent letters stating the entire student body had voted to opt out. Problem is, the license was signed anyway- WITHOUT our knowledge. It was done against everyone's publicly stated wishes, completely behind closed doors.

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