Balancing of Interests under Copyright Law

johnny-automatic-scales-of-justice-300pxCopyright law often includes a consideration of a “balancing the rights”, usually balancing the rights of content users and the rights of content creators.  Some recent court decisions illustrate how this “balancing” takes place and explore some new issues in copyright law. Maltz v. Witterick (a decision issued by the Federal Court of Canada in May 2016) relates to balancing rights as between two competing content creators.  A writer by the name of Jennifer Witterick was “inspired” to write a fictional novel after viewing a documentary produced by Maltz and some others regarding the life of Francizska Halamajowa and her daughter Helena, who hid three Jewish families when the German army occupied Poland during the Second World War.   Upon becoming aware of the novel, Maltz noted a number of factual similarities between the documentary and the novel, and commenced an action for copyright infringement against the author Witterick and the author’s publisher.  By way of background, the Courts have long held that copyright does not apply to historical facts, such as the German occupation of Poland during the Second World War.  The Judge in Maltz v. Witterick noted that the novel was a fictional story aimed at young readers and had a much different “feel” than the documentary.  The only thing that had been taken were some factual underpinnings for the story.  Counsel for Maltz argued that there was a difference between historical facts in which no one can own copyright and “small facts” drawn from diary entries relating to events on a particular date. In  concluding that the writer Witterick’s use of some actual facts from the life of Halamajowa did not amount to infringement, the Judge made a finding that facts are facts and no one owns copyright in them no matter what their relative size or significance.  A second case, Geophysical Services Incorporated v. Encana et al (a decision of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench in April 2016) relates to balancing rights as between content creators and public authorities.  Geophysical Services Incorporated (GSI) was in the business of selling seismic data.   This seismic data was filed with a government board pursuant to a regulatory regime established under the Canada Petroleum Resources Act (CPRA).  After a period of 5 years, the seismic data was made available to the public by the board.   GSI commenced a legal action for copyright infringement against Encana and many other companies that were making use of the seismic data without GSI’s permission.  The Judge confirmed that GSI owned copyright in its seismic data, but held that to the extent that the regulatory regime of the CPRA conflicts with the Copyright Act, the CPRA regulatory regime prevails. The wording of the CPRA, properly interpreted, allows for disclosure without restriction after a defined period of time. It is a complete and specific code that applies to all oil and gas information in the offshore and frontier lands, including seismic data. Its provisions supplant any more general pieces of legislation, such as the Copyright Act.  Both of the foregoing decisions have been met with criticism.  The Maltz v. Witterick case is criticized as it allows a party to use intimate details of someone else’s life without compensation. The Geophysical services v. Encana et al case is criticized as amounting to expropriation by the government without compensation.  What do you think?  Please communicate your views to dthompson@tcllp.ca