In a recent case of the Supreme Court of Canada, Cinar Corporation v Robinson, we are reminded of what constitutes copyright infringement. At the beginning of her judgment, Chief Justice McLachlin writes:
“Canadian law protects the exclusive right of copyright owners to reproduce or to authorize the reproduction of their works. The unauthorized reproduction of a substantial part of an original work constitutes copyright infringement, for which a copyright owner can seek various remedies.”
In this case, Claude Robinson (“Robinson”) was the creator of an educational children’s television show, The Adventures of Robinson Curiosity, featuring a character named Robinson Curiosity, inspired by Robinson’s own experiences and Daniel Defoe’s novel,Robinson Crusoe. In October 1985, Robinson was issued a registration certificate by the Copyright Office identifying him as the author of the television show. A corporation of which Robinson was the sole director and shareholder, Nilem inc. (“Nilem”), was identified as the owner of the literary work.
From 1985 until 1987, Robinson and Nilem attempted to have the project developed. Their attempts included consulting with Cinar Corporation (“Cinar”) and other individual officers and directors of Cinar. Unfortunately, attempts to have the show developed were unsuccessful.
In 1995, Robinson thought he could turn his work into interactive educational children’s software. It was at about this time that he discovered a new children’s television show,Robinson Sucroë(“Sucroe”), was starting which, based on the first episode, he believed was a copy of his creation. As it turns out, parties who had been given access to his original project – including Cinar, and directors and officers with whom Robinson consulted – were involved in this new television show. As a result, Robinson and Nilem commenced an action for copyright infringement.
The trial judge, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada all found that copyright was infringed.
The Copyright Act protects the expression of ideas in original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. It gives the owner of the copyright the sole right to reproduce the work or any substantial part of the work. The Copyright Act does not protect ideas themselves. Further, it does not protect every piece of an original work.
Copyright law is meant to “[strike] ‘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’.” When determining whether a substantial part of a work was reproduced, a “qualitative and holistic approach” will generally be taken. In this judgment (which is well worth the read for anyone interested in copyright law), the court explains that, “to determine whether a substantial part of Robinson’s work was copied, the features that were copied by the Cinar appellants must be considered cumulatively, in the context of Robinson’s work taken as a whole.”
In the end, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the “the trial judge committed no reviewable errors in finding that Sucroë reproduced a substantial part of [Robinson’s creation].”