Own a photocopier, get sued

In the “are you sure that wasn’t in the Onion first?” files, Access Copyright, a Canadian copyright licensing agency, is suing Staples/Business Depot/Bureau en Gros for copyright infringement, to the tune of $10 million.

Their argument (and I use the term loosely) seems to be that because the chain has a photocopying service, it is profiting off the illegal photocopying going on in its stores and is liable for contributory infringement.

Welcome to the post-Napster world folks, where simply offering people the tools to commit copyright infringement somehow makes you guilty. Next up, we can expect photocopying machine makers, paper mills and ink manufacturers, as well as the retailers who sell them, to get handed court papers. Now that personal responsibility is dead, everyone else is guilty. The bar owner is responsible if someone drives home drunk. Railroad companies are responsible if someone gets hit by a train.

If this had been brought up 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But then the DMCA brought in the idea that manufacturing the “tools” to infringe copyright circumvent access or copy protection mechanisms (thanks Jonathan) was also against the law. Napster was shut down, Jon Johansen was arrested (charged, and later acquitted) and anyone involved in facilitating the distribution of content was living a life of fear.

Fortunately in Canada, we’re a bit more sane when it comes to copyright law. The Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that Internet service providers were not responsible for copyright infringement that merely passed through their servers.

It’s also hard to prove that, just because someone’s photocopying a copyrighted work, they plan on selling it or redistributing it to others against the law. (For that matter, do people still infringe copyrights using photocopiers for anything other than university textbooks? It seems so 10-years-ago.)

Michael Geist, naturally, has some brief thoughts on the matter. He agrees Access Copyright has a very big hill to climb to make its case. (UPDATE Nov. 19: Now that he’s seen the suit, he sees it as a “sure loser”)

Insanity = genius

Frankly, I welcome this lawsuit (though I think it would be better to see it in the U.S.). Courts can’t simply rely on the fact that Napster was so obviously profiting off copyright infringement to set the bar for these kinds of cases. The slippery slope has to be travelled until they realize that tools that can be used to do illegal things should not themselves be illegal.

At some point, jurisprudence will have to live up to the fact that we’ve already passed reductio ad absurdum.

2 thoughts on “Own a photocopier, get sued

  1. mare

    Charging owners of copiers is not something they invented, it already exist in Europe. In the Netherlands, and possible other countries as well, a publishing industry group (comparable to the CIAA) collect money from all businesses that own copiers (that’s probably every one of them) because those machines are or can be used for copyright infringement. It’s comparable to the fact that in some countries, and Canada is one of them, empty CD-Roms and iPods are levied to alleviate the losses by the record industry. Of course the record industry has much better lobbyists, but maybe the publishing business has now found a way to get their “lost” money.

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  2. Jonathan Bailey

    First off, a few minor points.

    First, the DMCA did not say that “manufacturing the “tools” to infringe copyright was also against the law”. What it did say was that the creation of tools used to circumvent access or copy controls was a violation of the law. That is a surprisingly huge difference.

    Under the DMCA, a photocopier is not illegal. Neither is a program that simply lets you copy files so long as it doesn’t circumvent a protection scheme. I’m no fan of these regulations but they are not nearly as broad as you seem to imply. If this were a U.S. case, the DMCA would not apply here at all.

    Second, also in the DMCA, hosts in the U.S. have similar protection to those in Canada. The only large difference is that, in the U.S. hosts have to remove works once they receive proper notice of infringement. Canada is currently working on similar legislation and the EU has already passed a much more strict version of the law (one that removes all formalities from notification).

    In short, Canada is somewhat different, but perhaps not as great as many feel. Especially if current legislation passes.

    Overall though, I don’t see this lawsuit going anywhere. It wouldn’t here in the U.S. as there is already very established legal precedent there and I think this is a desperation ploy myself.

    It’ll be the butt of jokes and then, most likely, disappear into the ether of a legal beatdown. Like most of these cases.

    But yes, personal responsibility is dead.

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