A University of Ottawa law professor in a confidential email advocated punishment of digital media that enforce copyright. Professor Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in internet law, refused questions on his correspondence obtained under Ontario’s Freedom Of Information Act. His remarks targeted Blacklock’s.
“I’m going to decline your request for an interview,” said Geist when asked for comment.
In a November 10, 2015 email to staff, Geist wrote the University should retaliate against Blacklock’s after the company won a $13,470 copyright judgment with a third party. “This decision makes no sense and hopefully will be appealed,” wrote Geist.
Ontario Small Claims Court ordered an Ottawa lobbyist to pay punitive damages for knowingly copying Blacklock’s works without payment or permission. The defendant did not appeal. Geist called it a “crazy copyright case” and suggested reprisal.
Using a personal email address, Geist wrote: “The University is currently a subscriber. I read the occasional article, but I must admit that I think we should cancel the service. Rewarding companies like this ultimately supports undermining fair copyright in Canada.”
In a series of confidential emails, librarians described Blacklock’s as “nasty” and “unethical” and promptly flagged the publication for cancellation at Geist’s request. Nearly half the University records obtained under Freedom Of Information, 25 of 51 pages of emails, were redacted.
Geist did not repeat his confidential remarks in public. In a February 8, 2016 Toronto Star commentary he promoted Blacklock’s and others as “specialty digital publications” representing “new voices” in Canadian media. “The work of journalists at these publications, along with niche print sources and experts who blog or write independently, offers the chance to reach different audiences and to cover specialized issues in greater depth,” wrote Geist.
The Professor made identical public remarks in testimony to the Commons heritage committee on October 6, 2016 without repeating his “crazy copyright” allegations.
“A Nasty Business, For Sure”
“Michael, thanks for this,” University Librarian Leslie Weir wrote Geist in reply to his “crazy copyright” email. “The decision definitely makes no sense and should be appealed”; “Blacklock’s was on my radar,” wrote Weir.
Documents show library staff on April 14, 2016 rated Blacklock’s as “definitely a candidate for cancellation” following Geist’s complaint. The University did not renew its three-year licensing agreement with Blacklock’s in 2017.
“This is not a vendor whom one can have a reasonable discussions with,” wrote then-Associate Librarian Tony Horava; “It is a nasty business, for sure.”
Freedom Of Information records indicate University staff struggled with a plausible explanation for cancelling Blacklock’s and issued contradictory statements, even on the same day. In a March 8, 2017 email Librarian Weir wrote a colleague, “We probably should have a heads-up that the cancellation was going ahead and prepared a message for responding to any concerns raised.”
That day at 4:13 pm Weir wrote in a confidential staff email: “Blacklock’s is known for its unethical behaviour”:
At 4:32 pm that same afternoon Weir wrote Blacklock’s publisher: “It is regrettable that we have had to cancel Blacklock’s Reporter. I am not sure if you have been following the media on the situation with our collections budget at the University of Ottawa, but we have had to cancel $1.9 million in content over the past year.”
Library staff issued similar misleading statements to a faculty member who complained over Blacklock’s cancellation.
Prof. Ravi Malhotra of the University’s law faculty emailed the library, “I think it is a valuable service and if there is any chance to find $ (I realize it is hard), it would be nice to keep.” Margo Jeske, director of the University’s law library, replied: “Hi Ravi: thank you for your feedback about Blacklock’s. As you know, we have been facing budget cutbacks all year. As such, I have had to make hard decisions about what to cancel and what to renew.”
Librarian Weir did not respond to an interview request.