Thursday, August 7, 2014

Montreal Graffiti Artist Sues Radio-Canada For Breach Of Moral Rights

A Montreal graffiti artist named Alexandre Veilleux (a.k.a. Alex Scaner) is suing Radio-Canada, the CBC’s French language service, for $45,000 for breaching the moral rights in one of his tags. The tag in question features the words “30 VIES” (30 Lives) written in red paint. A Radio-Canada television show entitled 30 Vies uses an image of the tag in its opening credits.

The tag in question
Mr. Veilleux, who appears to be an internationally known graffiti artist, claims that Radio-Canada used the image without his consent. He contends that his moral rights have been infringed because the image was distorted or mutilated in such a way so as to cause damage to his honour or reputation.

The most interesting issue here is whether one can claim copyright infringement in a work that has been created in violation of the law. Mr. Veilleux did not get permission to tag the wall in question. The Copyright Act itself does not determine the subsistence of copyright based on whether the work was created legally or illegally; all that really matters is fixation and originality. There is, however, a long standing public policy rule in the Common Law that a person should not be allowed to profit from his or her own misdeed -nemo auditur propriam turpitudinem allegans. Under this principle, Veilleux should not be able to enforce the copyright in his work even if such copyright was valid and subsisting at the time of the alleged infringement. 

This would be a satisfactory analysis, except for the fact that Quebec is a Civil Law jurisdiction. Since Veilleux’s entitlement to compensation has to do with the law of remedies rather than copyright law, the Common Law should not apply in this case. The question then become whether the nemo auditur maxim applies in Quebec. The answer is yes and no.

A preliminary search of the case law shows applications of this principle both before and after the coming into force of the current Civil Code of Quebec (C.c.Q.). From my search, I was only able to find applications of this maxim in contractual matters where one party was prevented from receiving restitution when the contract was breached by the other party. In each of these cases, the moving party committed some act in bad faith to cause the breach entitling them to restitution. This is inspired by Article 1699 al. 2 C.c.Q.:

Art. 1699 - Restitution of prestations takes place where a person is bound by law to return to another person the property he has received, either unlawfully or in error, or under a juridical act which is subsequently annulled with retroactive effect or whose obligations become impossible to perform by reason of superior force.

The court may, exceptionally, refuse restitution where it would have the effect of according an undue advantage to one party, whether the debtor or the creditor, unless it considers it sufficient, in that case, to modify the scope or mode of the restitution instead.

Art. 1699 - La restitution des prestations a lieu chaque fois qu'une personne est, en vertu de la loi, tenue de rendre à une autre des biens qu'elle a reçus sans droit ou par erreur, ou encore en vertu d'un acte juridique qui est subséquemment anéanti de façon rétroactive ou dont les obligations deviennent impossibles à exécuter en raison d'une force majeure.

Le tribunal peut, exceptionnellement, refuser la restitution lorsqu'elle aurait pour effet d'accorder à l'une des parties, débiteur ou créancier, un avantage indu, à moins qu'il ne juge suffisant, dans ce cas, de modifier plutôt l'étendue ou les modalités de la restitution. (Emphasis added).

This Article is found in the part of the C.c.Q. dealing with obligations. It applies in two cases: 1) When an individual receives property to which he or she has no right; and 2) when a contract is “resolved” (“resolu”) - the parties are restored to their pre-contractual position as though the contract never happened. 

Copyright is a right in rem (note that Common Law and not Civilian principles of property law apply now because we are talking about copyright proper). Article 1699 C.c.Q. clearly does not apply in this case.

Given the opportunity, the Quebec Superior Court should take this chance to clarify whether the age old nemo auditor maxim applies to such cases in Quebec. Since Radio-Canada will likely submit case law from other Provinces showing application of this principle, it is an open question as to whether the courts in Quebec will choose to harmonize this point of law with the rest of the country or go its own route.

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