OTTAWA | February 12, 2010

CBC, do uCopy?

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It’s common for websites like to outline terms and conditions for using their content. It’s also common for users to ignore them. 

But small print on the CBC’s website is causing a big stir in the Canadian blogosphere.

Critics say’s online content licensing system is charging Canadians for use of copyrighted material that should be free.

The iCopyright "License" button appears at the top of articles. Geist speculates that bloggers have taken notice of iCopyright recently because made the system more visible.

The CBC uses a company called iCopyright to sell licences to use CBC content. When users click the “License” button at the top of a article, a window pops up giving them the option to post it to a web site, intranet or blog, republish it, or print or email it – for a fee, although it’s free to print and email stories in small quantities.

CBC’s use of iCopyright recently came to the attention of several prominent Canadian bloggers. Word spread, and the system was widely panned on blogs and on Twitter.

Private media outlets such as the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star also use iCopyright, but have not seen the type of backlash from Canadians CBC has.

“There is a sentiment that when you’ve got a public broadcaster, a public broadcaster ought to be working to make their content as widely available as possible — not taking steps to create barriers to that,” says Internet law expert Michael Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa.

Copyrights and responsibilities

Some critics object with having to pay to use content partly paid for by the federal government, which funds the CBC.

“For most of the bloggers I’ve seen, they feel upset that CBC is using taxpayers’ money to basically use a system that is asking them to pay for it again,” says Cameron McMaster, a Toronto-based policy consultant specializing in communications, media and copyright.

CBC spokesperson Jeff Keay says there’s “nothing unusual” about having to pay for CBC content. He says the licensing policy is the same as it’s been for years, and that Canadians can still post excerpts from on blogs and websites without charge.

When you've got a public broadcaster, a public broadcaster ought to be working to make their content as  widely available as possible — not taking steps to create barriers to that.

Use of copyrighted content is covered under the fair dealing provisions of the Copyright Act of Canada, which allow Canadians to copy and share copyrighted material for research, study, criticism, review or news reporting.

“The vast majority of casual use, if I can use that term, on our website, would be covered under the fair dealing provisions, but the fact is that if you want to use our material, we ask that you seek our permission for that,” he says.

“There’s an awful lot of material on our websites that is there as a result of agreements with other rights holders, and you would be breaching those rights holders’ rights if you were to publish it.”

Those rights holders include news organizations such as the Associated Press and the Canadian Press, whose stories the CBC pays a fee to post on its website.

Commercial use only?

Keay says the iCopyright system, which has been in place at CBC for six months to a year, is geared toward businesses who want to licence CBC material for commercial use, pointing to Yahoo! Canada as an example of a commercial website that pays to post CBC stories. 

“What we did, really, was automate a system that was done manually before and it was sort of done as a series of one-offs,” Keay says. “Someone would contact us and apply for permission and we would have to do that manually, which takes time and effort.”

Keay says iCopyright automates that process, saving time and money. He says “not a large number” of people are buying licences, but won’t say how much money the CBC makes through the system because the corporation does not share such financial details.

Geist says the iCopyright guidelines at don’t indicate that the licences are meant for commercial purposes.

“I don’t know how CBC can make the claim that they’re concerned primarily with commercial use when the policy itself speaks specifically to non-commercial licence,” he says. When users repost stories from to other websites through iCopyright, they are asked to choose between price plans for non-profit or for-profit use.

Complicating the matter is the increasingly blurred line between what is commercial use and what is not.

“We have bloggers who I guess you could say they make some value out of what they do, like people might read a blog and think, ‘Oh that person looks like someone I want to commission for a research project,’” McMaster says. Some blogs also make money by hosting ads. “They are accruing value through blogging and exchanging this information, so is that commercial?”

Users license content through iCopyright. Only printing up to five copies and emailing up to five  recipients is free.

Rules will change

Confusion over what Canadians can do with CBC content without paying for it is partly to blame for the outrage over iCopyright. Keay admits that CBC’s guidelines for using copyrighted online content – such as those found on a “Permissions FAQ page” – are unclear, even contradictory at times.

Jesse Brown, the host and producer of Search Engine, a TVO technology podcast says a lot of organizations wrote terms of service agreements regarding copyright before social media, and now they’re out of date.

“They basically thought that old licensing and old copyright regulations could just be ported over to the web,” he says. “So they got some lawyer to write all sorts of things saying all the things you can’t do with their content.”

Keay says the rules for sharing online content are still a work in progress and the CBC will be updating its policies.

“This is something that’s going to occur over time, it’s not something we’re going to solve at the flick of a switch or the stroke of a pen,” he says. “When those changes are going to happen, I don’t know. Sooner rather than later, I think.”

He adds that making all copyrighted content available for free is unrealistic.

“People work and they produce things and they have a right to the profit that they create,” he says. “Yes, there’s a school of thought out there that says everything should be free to everyone all the time, but that’s a long way from reality.”

iCopyright: The basics
  • iCopyright protects the rights of creators' web content, providing the criteria for what others can and can't do with published material online.
  • It provides a system for users of online works to obtain legally the rights and permissions to use that content.
  • When printing, emailing or posting/publishing material for free through iCopyright, the company makes money by selling ads; revenue is split with the publisher. When users purchase licenses, iCopyright gets a "small percentage" of the fee.

Source:; Mike O'Donnell, president and CEO, iCopyright

Terms, conditions and fees

The news agency - not iCopyright - decides what content they will charge people for, and how much the cost of that content will be.


Email up to five copies of a story for free
Six or more emails from $20.00 - $325.00

Print up to five copies of story for free
Six prints or more from $10.00 - $125.00

Post CBC articles on a web site, intranet or blog
For-profit price plan: $250 for first month; $500 per year
Non-profit price plan: $125.00 for first month; $250 per year


How are iCopyright's rules enforced?
  • iCopyright encourages people to report piracy: "it is remarkably easy for digital bounty hunters to catch and prosecute pirates, via technical means and whistle blowing."
  • A reward up to $1 million is offered for reporting piracy, paid by industry associations such as the Software & Information Industry Association, not iCopyright or the publisher.

Source:; Mike O'Donnell, president and CEO, iCopyright

Canada's Copyright Act

Fair dealing is a set of limitations and exceptions to copyright. The Copyright Act provides that fair dealing with published work for the purposes of private study, research, criticism, review or news reporting is not infringement.

The Canadian Intellectual Property Office outlines examples of what is classified as infringement and what is not:


  • Reprinting an article without the copyright owner's permission
  • Photocopying articles for a class without permission

Not Infringement

  • Quoting a few lines of an article in a research paper (fair dealing with attribution)
  • Obtaining permission from the author and paying a fee to him or her (if requested) in order to use an article

Source: Canadian Intellectual Property Office