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Alberta Ruling Preserves Industry Access to Geological Maps

Natural gas and oil exploration firms hung on to free access to Canadian offshore and northern geological treasure maps in a landmark Alberta court verdict against a property rights crusade by a Calgary seismic survey enterprise.

Federal disclosure requirements, under legislation and regulation with a pedigree dating back to 1950, trump copyright recognition that geoscience products deserve as works of high scientific art akin to symphonies, ruled Queen's Bench Justice Kristine Eidsvik.

Geophysical Service Inc. (GSI) immediately moved to overturn the verdict in the Alberta Court of Appeal, reported national business law firm Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP in a note to its industry clientele.

After a lengthy trial, Eidsvik agreed that the status quo is hard on geophysical surveyors but suggested that the crusade for permanent property rights to charge industry for results of their work belongs in the political arena instead of the law courts.

"The regulatory regime has confiscated the seismic data created over the offshore and frontier lands and the Canadian Petroleum Resources Act is not apologetic for it -- indeed, it makes clear that there is no compensation for any confiscation," the verdict said.

The regime requires surveys to be filed with the National Energy Board (NEB) and the Nova Scotia and Newfoundland offshore petroleum boards. The agencies make the costly reports available for free after protected periods of five to 10 years in order to attract industry activity starting with bids for leases to drilling prospects. A pure copyright regime would enable survey firms to demand payment for 50 years or longer.

"GSI was fully aware that some of its data would have to be submitted and that it would be made public when it undertook its work on these offshore and frontier lands," said the Queen’s Bench judge in her 74-page verdict.

"It is perhaps true that the provisions for submission have become more onerous over time and that the quality of the materials submitted have become better, further encroaching on GSI’s ability to license its data to others, but the provisions have always been there," wrote Eidsvik.

"Unfair as this may seem, it is not for this Court to rewrite the legislation comprising the regulatory regime."

The Queen’s Bench verdict consolidated into a single case 25 lawsuits that GSI launched against the regulatory agencies, seismic information distributors and a roll call of exploration and production firms from Encana, Devon and ExxonMobil to Husky, Statoil and Suncor.

GSI, owned by Calgary's prominent Einarsson family of industry veterans, claims ownership of Canada’s largest seismic data warehouse including a multi-million-dollar library of information about Atlantic seabed gas and oil prospects purchased from their original collector, Halliburton’s offshore marine survey service.

The Calgary firm insisted it only filed its material with Canadian regulatory agencies after being assured its intellectual property rights would be respected, and others would be restricted to perusing hard-copy summaries in reference library-like settings.

GSI said it has uncovered "evidence of hundreds of instances where the offshore boards were making copies for third parties, scanning data, disclosing image files, sending data to be copied on behalf of third parties and further disclosing data to third parties, undermining the commercial value."

The Osler law firm, however, described the Queen's Bench verdict as assuring Canadian and international gas and oil developers that they are complying with the accepted status quo in dealings with the regulatory agencies.

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