Donald C. Brace Memorial Lecture by Professor David Vaver – “User Rights: Fair Use and Beyond”

Donald C. Brace Memorial Lecture by Professor David Vaver – “User Rights: Fair Use and Beyond”

Faces on a computer screen

Photo by Prof. Pina D'Agostino

Emily Xiang is an IPilogue Writer, the President of the Intellectual Property Society of Osgoode (IPSO), and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.


For fifty years, the Copyright Society of the USA (CSUSA) has invited numerous esteemed figures to present the annual Donald C. Brace Memorial Lecture. This past Monday, Osgoode’s very own Professor David Vaver delivered the 2021 Brace lecture on “User Rights: Fair Use and Beyond” as the series’ very first international speaker from outside the United States. Professor Vaver spoke on the origins of fair dealing in Canada and its differences and similarities in comparison to the American legal concept of “fair use”, its evolution throughout the history of Canadian common law jurisprudence, and its potentially far-reaching future beyond Canada and copyright law. 

Professor Vaver opened his lecture by introducing Jack McClenaghan’s novel Moving Target[1], a man-on-the-run thriller set in New Zealand during World War II that follows an army deserter as he is hunted by the military. Similarly, the boundary between copyright and user rights can also be likened to a “moving target” – elusive, ever-evolving, and always open to debate. And like McClenaghan’s fictional account of militant pursuit, the history of tension between copyright and user rights has been a tale of survival on the part of both. 

“Fair dealing” in Canada is a statutory exception to copyright infringement, and has been understood by the Supreme Court “as an integral part of the Copyright Act [and more] than simply a defence”. The Court refers to it more specifically as a “user’s right”. However, fair dealing’s designation as an “exception” inherently produces a negative implication: that copyright law is the “natural order” of things. That anyone’s use of a copyright-protected work infringes the copyright owner’s property. That any deviation from that rule must be an “exception”. 

However, the history of copyright law has always read quite differently. Up until the 20th century, when copyright law first became more formally codified in Canadian legislation, the public had relatively free reign and plenty of rights to use and to benefit from the circulation of works at the time. However, over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, the island of copyright law that once stood amidst a sea of user rights began to expand, and as the sea around it shrank, the two eventually seemed to switch in character altogether. 

It wasn’t until the late 1900s that courts in the UK began to recognize a problem with the tendency towards legal copyright. In Hubbard v Vosper [1972] 2 QB 84, the Church of Scientology sued a former member for publishing a book criticizing Scientology that contained material copied from Scientology books and documents, as well as confidential information pertaining to Scientology courses. The Court of Appeal unanimously held that the scope and content of the fair dealing defence should include works of criticism. Along a similar vein in the US, Professor L. Ray Patterson and Judge Stanley F. Birch argued in their 1996 article Copyright and Free Speech Rights that “the subject matter of copyright is information and learning, which implicates the right of citizens to know. This right is protected by both the First Amendment and the copyright clause”. 

Over time, Canadian courts also began to increasingly recognize the need for a careful balancing act to weigh the rights of copyright owners against those of the public. In Théberge v Galerie d’Art du Petit Champlain Inc. 2002 SCC 34, the court noted that “[t]he Copyright Act is usually presented as a balance between promoting the public interest in the encouragement and dissemination of works of the arts and intellect and obtaining a just reward for the creator...In crassly economic terms it would be as inefficient to overcompensate artists and authors for the right of reproduction as it would be self-defeating to undercompensate them.” Professor Vaver also credited Chief Justice McLachlin (as she then was) and Justice Abella for influencing this trajectory in Canadian copyright jurisprudence, as reflected by their rulings in more recent copyright law cases such as CCH Canadian Ltd. v Law Society of Upper Canada, [2004] 1 SCR 339, in which the Court unanimously held that the Law Society’s practice of providing photocopy services to researchers fell within the ambit of fair dealing, and SOCAN v Bell Canada, 2012 SCC 6, in which the use of previews of musical works on online music services was also considered to be fair dealing. 

In conclusion, Professor Vaver invited listeners to consider how the idea of user rights may extend beyond the concept of fair dealing as a legal defence, perhaps beyond copyright law, or even beyond Canadian borders. In quoting from his own 2013 article Copyright Defenses as User Rights: “[J]urisdictions that view copyright's primary purpose as - to quote Nimmer - ‘not to reward the author but rather to secure the general benefits derived by the public from the labors of authors’ may find user rights a concept worth considering for their copyright law. And, while one is at it, why not for all intellectual property laws?”

[1] Jack McClenaghan, Moving Target (Gollancz, 1966).