The Supreme Court of Canada has decided the much-anticipated York University v. Access Copyright case, reaffirming—in an unanimous opinion—that “public access to and dissemination of artistic and intellectual works” are “a primary goal of copyright.” We join our friends at the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, CIPPIC, and all throughout Canada in applauding this important decision.
The Access Copyright case was centered around the question whether educational institutions in Canada were required to pay certain tariffs to Access Copyright. Access Copyright had argued that its tariffs were mandatory for educational institutions, and recently attempted to raise them from $3.38 to $45 per student, per year, along with a variety of other changes. In response, York University argued that its use was fair dealing and, as a result, that it was not required to pay a tariff or any other fee for such use. After a lengthy court battle, the Supreme Court of Canada has now ruled in favor of York, holding that the tariffs are not mandatory and emphasizing the importance of “protect[ing] users from the potentially unfair exertion of . . . market power” by big copyright interests like Access Copyright.
While the Court did not address the specifics of York’s own fair dealing, it was sure to emphasize “the nature of fair dealing as a user’s right” in Canada. As the Court explained:
Copyright law has public interest goals. . . . [T]he public benefits of our system of copyright are much more than “a fortunate by-product of private entitlement” [citation omitted]. Instead, increasing public access to and dissemination of artistic and intellectual works, which enrich society and often provide users with the tools and inspiration to generate works of their own, is a primary goal of copyright. “Excessive control by holders of copyrights and other forms of intellectual property may unduly limit the ability of the public domain to incorporate and embellish creative innovation in the long-term interests of society as a whole” (Théberge v. Galerie d’Art du Petit Champlain inc.,  2 S.C.R. 336, at para. 32, per Binnie J.).York University v Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright), 2021 SCC 32
Copyright can only serve its true purpose when due attention is given to user’s rights and the public interest. But all too often, in courts around the world, the public interest is not fairly addressed. The Access Copyright decision helps ensure that Canadian courts do not make this mistake; as Professor Michael Geist has noted, it “removes any doubt that the Supreme Court remains strongly supportive of user’s rights in copyright.”
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