For the London Free Press – February 24, 2014
Read this at lfpress.com
In December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that copyright applies to protect how an idea was expressed in a story, but not the idea behind the story.
The case of Cinar v. Robinson dealt with an author’s claim that a Cinar television show was so similar to an idea he pitched to them previously that it breached his copyright. The court agreed.
Claude Robinson “spent years developing an educational children’s television show, The Adventures of Robinson Curiosity (… Robinson) drew his inspiration (for this project) from Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, as well as from his own life experiences.”
During the mid-1980s, Robinson and his company, Les Productions Nilem Inc., pitched the idea of his television show to Cinar Corporation.
Several years later, Robinson happened to watch a television show entitled Robinson Sucroe, a show that appeared to copy several aspects of his creation The Adventures of Robinson Curiosity — the show he had pitched years earlier to Cinar.
Upon further investigation, Robinson “discovered that several parties who had been given access to his Curiosity project . . . were also involved in the production of” the show that actually made it to television.
Robinson launched a copyright infringement case against the individuals behind the production of the show that made it to television.
The court had to determine what constituted part of the public domain, versus the property of an individual that attracts copyright protection. Both shows were, after all, modelled after the novel Robinson Crusoe. The Supreme Court agreed with the trial judge decision that there was an infringement by Cinar and other related parties upon Robinson’s work.
This decision was based on the similarity of the distinct visual appearance and personalities of the characters. Their appearance and personalities were the product of Robinson’s skill and judgment. The court also felt that particular visual elements of the island were conceived by Robinson and copied by Cinar.
The test to determine if copyright has been breached is whether the defendant copied a substantial amount of the author’s work. The Supreme Court stated that “a qualitative and holistic approach must be adopted (in determining whether someone’s idea was stolen). In order to determine whether a substantial part of Robinson’s work was copied, the features that were copied by Cinar appellants must be considered cumulatively, in the context of Robinson’s work taken as a whole.”
In other words, the test for infringement (at least for written works) is not to tear the work apart and compare only the original elements.
The court awarded damages, punitive damages and costs totalling more than $2 million. But given the complexity and time involved in seeing this copyright action through to the Supreme Court of Canada, it has been suggested that Robinson is still behind financially.