Technological Neutrality: (Pre)Serving the Purposes of Copyright Law

In the realm of law, neutrality is widely hailed as a fundamental principle of fairness, justice and equity; it is also, however, widely criticized as a myth that too often obscures the inevitable reality of perspective, interest or agenda. It should come as little surprise, then, that the principle of technological neutrality, recently employed by the Supreme Court of Canada when applying copyright law to online activities, seems similarly fundamental in the copyright realm—but also largely mythical and potentially obfuscatory.

In what is now dubbed the Supreme Court’s “copyright pentalogy”—five copyright judgments released concurrently by the Court in July 2012[1]—the unprecedented importance accorded by the Court to the principle of technological neutrality is clear; what remains unclear is precisely what “technological neutrality” means, why it matters, and whether or how it can (or should) ever be attained.

This chapter aims to critically assess the significance of the principle and its potential to guide the future development of copyright law and policy in Canada. In Part 2, I set out the various shades of meaning that can be attached to technological neutrality, first as a principle of sound regulation, and then as a principle of statutory interpretation by the courts. I review, in Part 3, the reasons delivered by the Justices in three of the five cases to examine the various and divergent ways in which the principle of technological neutrality was defined and rationalized by members of the Court. I proceed to explore the application of the principle and its role in resolving the legal issues before the Court, drawing connections between conceptualizations of the principle and its interpretive impact, and focusing on its capacity to support the extension and/or circumscription of owners’ and users’ rights.

In Part 4, I consider whether the role accorded to technological neutrality as a guiding principle is justifiable or appropriate in the context of Canadian copyright policy. Arguing that its justification is found in, and flows from, the concept of balance at the heart of the copyright system, I proceed to offer some thoughts on its potential significance in the future of Canadian copyright law and in light of the recent amendments to the Copyright Act.[2] Part 5 concludes that the new emphasis placed by the Court on technological neutrality as a guiding principle is an important and positive development for Canada’s copyright system. The caveat, however, is that the principle cannot perform this role effectively if conceived (or rhetorically invoked) as a limited principle of formal non-discrimination that merely justifies the extension of copyright’s reach. Rather, I argue, it must be conceived in a functional sense, shaping copyright norms to produce a substantively equivalent effect across technologies, with a view to preserving the copyright balance in the digital realm.


Featured here is the first part of a book chapter written by Carys Craig, Associate Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. The full chapter is available for download here. The book is entitled “The Copyright Pentalogy: How the Supreme Court of Canada Shook the Foundations of Canadian Copyright Law” edited by Michael Geist, and is available for purchase or download here.


[1] Entertainment Software Association v Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada, 2012 SCC 34, [2012] 2 SCR 231 < csc/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/9994/> [ESA]; Rogers Communications Inc. v Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada, 2012 SCC 35, [2012] 2 SCR 283 < item/9995/> [Rogers]; Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada v Bell Canada, 2012 SCC 36, [2012] 2 SCR 326 < decisia-scc-csc/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/9996/> [Bell]; Alberta (Education) v Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright), 2012 SCC 37, [2012] 2 SCR 345 <> [Alberta (Education)]; Re:Sound v Motion Picture Theatre Associations of Canada, 2012 SCC 38, [2012] 2 SCR 376 < scc-csc/en/item/9999/> [Re:Sound].

[2] Copyright Act, RSC 1985, c C-42 <>; Copyright Modernization Act, SC 2012, c 20 <>.

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