York University v. Access Copyright: A huge copyright win for education

On July 30, 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) issued its long-awaited decision in the York University v. Access Copyright case. Access Copyright, the collective that licences copying of published literary works on behalf of creators and publishers in Canada, initiated the lawsuit back in 2013.

There were two main issues in the case:

  1. whether an Access Copyright license is mandatory for post-secondary institutions (this is the fee per FTE student that Langara paid to Access Copyright prior to September 2013), and;
  2. whether York’s fair dealing guidelines, which are akin to Langara’s guidelines, are indeed fair to copyright owners.

The court essentially sided with York on both issues in a unanimous verdict authored by now-retired Justice Rosalie Abella.* As legal scholar Michael Geist notes, “The decision removes any doubt that the Supreme Court remains strongly supportive of user’s rights in copyright.”  

For legal reasons I won’t delve into here, the court could not issue a declaration on the validity of the York fair dealing guidelines. Still, Justice Abella’s verdict clarified the lower courts’ fair dealing analysis. Here’s my favourite takeaway:

“Funds “saved” by proper exercise of the fair dealing right go to the University’s core objective of education, not to some ulterior commercial purpose…The purpose of copying conducted by university teachers for student use is for the student’s education” (para. 103).

So, what does this decision mean for us at Langara? Canada’s colleges, institutes, and universities believe in preserving balance between user and creator rights. As such, we will continue to evaluate and evolve our copyright policies and practices based on guidance provided by this important verdict and future developments.

-Lindsay Tripp,
Copyright Librarian

*Justice Abella also delivered the majority decision in the landmark 2012 Alberta (Education) v. Access Copyright case which affirmed, among other things, that teachers/copiers share a “symbiotic purpose” with their students/users. 

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