mass copyright infringement suit by lawyers given go-ahead

The Lawyers Weekly reports that a class action lawsuit accusing Thomson Reuters of “mass copyright infringement” was given the green light to proceed last week. There’s a good summary of the facts in the article, but here is my 30 second summary of the summary:

  • lawyers write pleadings, motions, affidavits and other legal documents which are filed with the courts
  • because they are filed with the courts, they are (for the most part) in the public record – anyone who pays a fee can get a copy, but typically only in (somewhat inconvenient) hardcopy
  • Thomson developed an electronic database where it did all the heavy lifting – it went to the courts, paid the fees, collected the hardcopies, scanned and digitized them, and made them available in a convenient and searchable form to subscribers – for a fee

The plaintiffs’ bone of contention is that, while Thomson did do a fair bit of work and paid the relevant court fees as would any individual requesting the same documents, it did not license their use from the authors of those documents, nor pay them for such license. Therefore, Thomson should be found liable for copyright infringement.

There was a good post and interesting discussion on this case on Slaw back in 2010 when the class proceeding was first started, with a number of comments arguing for and against. I was amongst the commentators and my initial reaction, primarily from the perspective of “black-letter” copyright law, was that the plaintiffs seemed to have a reasonably good case, while comparatively, the defendants seem to have a rather weak defence.

Since then, and after giving the matter a bit more thought, I’ve become a bit more ambivalent. There are some competing policy objectives (each of which has its merits) that will need to be considered by the court. One of the distinctions that seem to be made in this case is the fact that Thomson has, apparently, profited quite handsomely from this service, whereas (presumably) individuals who request a single copy do not. Perhaps this is a straw man of my own construction, but I would have thought that many individuals who request copies of pleadings are lawyers, who use such documents in order to do their work, and thereby generate fees. Would it therefore be appropriate to distinguish between the two? Should fair use encompass use through one medium (hardcopy), but not another (digitized and searchable)? Should Thomson’s efforts in taking the time to obtain copies and digitize, index and sort them entitle it to earn a profit from its efforts without an obligation to compensate the original authors? After all, what subscribers are really paying for is not access to the documents themselves, but rather, I would think, how the documents are accessed – it is more cost-effective for them to pay a fee to access pleadings and the like in easily searchable and downloadable form from the convenience of their desk than to schlep around to courts to manually find and retrieve the same documents.

Of course there are other considerations as well – public access to the courts and to the public record, and a number of others. Certainly raises a number of thorny questions. If of interest, I’d encourage you to visit the Slaw article I mentioned above for somewhat more learned debate than my cursory ramblings.

Also, apparently the court chose to certify some (but not all issues). From the article:

The judge certified two common issues relating to Thomson’s alleged conduct. Did the company through its Litigator service: (1) “reproduce, publish, telecommunicate to the public, sell, rent, or hold itself out as the author or owner of court documents?” or  (2)  “authorize subscribers to reproduce, publish, telecommunicate to the public, sell, rent, translate, or hold themselves out as the author or owner of court documents?”

The judge also certified common issues raised by Thomson’s defences: “Does Thomson have a public policy defence to copyright infringement or to the violation of moral rights based on (a) fair dealing, (b) the open court principle, (c) freedom of expression, (d) the necessity of using the idea of the court document as it is expressed, or (e) a business or professional custom or public policy reason that would justify reproducing, publishing, telecommunicating to the public, selling, renting, translating, or holding itself out as the author or owner of court documents?”

Moreover, “did Thomson have the copyright owner’s implicit consent to reproduce, publish, telecommunicate to the public, sell, rent, translate, or hold itself out as the author or owner of court documents?”

Certified as common issues as well: “are class members entitled to injunctive relief” under s. 34(1) of the Copyright Act; and “does Thomson’s conduct justify an award of aggravated, exemplary, or punitive damages?’