The Copyright Act and Paywalls

Companies or individuals who wish to bypass paywalls should be aware that a Canadian court  recently held an association liable for copyright infringement because it requested and obtained a paywall-protected news article from a third party with a subscription to the news site.

The articles, images, and audio and video files found on the Internet are all works subject to copyright, meaning that some entity (e.g., an individual or company) owns copyright and thus has “the sole right to produce or reproduce the work or any substantial part thereof in any material form whatever.” It is an illegal infringement of copyright to do what the copyright owner has the sole right to do, without the owner’s permission.  These aspect of copyright law are widely understood (though often ignored, e.g., music file sharing).

Less well known is a relatively new aspect of Canada’s copyright law relating to technical protection measures.  Under our Copyright Act: a technical protection measure is defined as any effective technology that in the ordinary course of its operation controls access to a work subject to copyright; and it is illegal to circumvent a technical protection measure.

A paywall is a system that prevents Internet users from accessing webpage content without a paid subscription.  For example, some general readership newspapers have implemented paywalls on their websites to increase their revenue, which has been diminishing due to a decline in print subscriptions and advertising revenue.

The recent court decision, Blacklock’s Reporter v Canadian Vintners Association, dealt with a dispute between a subscription-based paywall-protected electronic daily news service providing detailed information about the Government and courts in Ottawa (Blacklock’s), and an industry association (Canadian Vintners) that did not have a subscription but had requested and obtained a copy of an article relating to the association, from a person with a subscription.  Blacklock’s usually charged $157 for a single-use subscription and $11,470 for an institutional membership.  When Blacklock’s became aware that two individuals at Canadian Vintners had accessed the article, Blacklock’s billed Canadian Vintners for two single-use subscriptions ($314) and requested the name of the person who had provided the copy (who was in breach of the terms and conditions of their subscription).

Canadian Vintners refused to pay or to provide the person’s name, and the dispute led to a lawsuit.  The Ontario Superior Court Small Claims Judge held that the paywall constituted a technical protection measure, and held that requesting and obtaining a copy of a paywall-protected  article from someone with a subscription, constituted the illegal act of circumventing the technical protection measure.  As the copy of the article was obtained illegally, the exceptions to copyright infringement (e.g., “fair dealing for the purpose of research, private study, education,… ”) that may apply in some situations, were not available to Canadian Vintners.

Thus, although Canadian Vintners had not itself made the infringing copy, it was found liable for copyright infringement based on the circumvention of the technical protection measure.  Further, the Judge awarded Blacklock’s damages based on the institutional membership ($11,470) plus $2,000 in punitive damages for Canadian Vintners highhanded behaviour (which included refusing to give the name of the person who provided the copy of the article, until ordered to do so by the Court).