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Grade 2 French teacher Natalie Ruel helps students in her class with math work at Mother Teresa elementary school in Calgary, Alberta on June 21, 2012.TODD KOROL/The Globe and Mail

Educators should be allowed to photocopy short texts and excerpts for their students without paying a copyright fee, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.

The ruling requires the Copyright Board of Canada to reconsider a narrow definition they've developed for the kinds of educational materials that are considered "fair dealing," and therefore exempt from copyright tariffs.

According to the board, only photocopies made by students qualify, but the Supreme Court decision suggests that some photocopies teachers make for students should also qualify.

School boards and education ministries pay millions of dollars in annual tariffs in order to distribute photocopies to students. Nova Scotia's Education Minister Ramona Jennex said schools stand to recover as much as $6-million in copyright tariffs based on the decision.

"We're extremely pleased," she said. "It's fantastic news for education."

She noted that teachers in other countries, including the U.S., Germany and Japan, can make photocopies for their students without the school system paying fees.

Teachers often use photocopies of short excerpts from sources such as newspapers, magazines and books to supplement class resources. Under the Copyright Board's definition of fair dealing, school systems must pay for the copies because they're used for instruction rather than private study.

By that definition, if a teacher were to line their students up at the photocopier and have them make the copies themselves, they could avoid the tariffs.

The decision doesn't eliminate the tariffs that school boards and education ministries pay, though it will likely reduce them. The Copyright Board is expected to review the tariffs in light of the Supreme Court's decision.

"We're disappointed about the outcome of the decision," said Roanie Levy, general counsel for Access Copyright.

She cautioned that the decision only applies to about 6 per cent of copying in education. "It's important to keep it in perspective," she said.

Her group calculated that copyright owners would stand to lose $1.3-million a year on school materials.