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Back to the Future: Will the Seventh Circuit Transform Fair Use?

Last month, the Seventh Circuit in Kienitz v. Sconnie Nation signaled what may be a seismic shift in how “fair use” cases are judged. In order to see why, let’s briefly review the statutory and judicial framework.

First, fair use is not a “right” as some “copy-left “ advocates would argue, but is a defense to copyright infringement codified since 1978 in Section 107 of the Copyright Act. And contrary to popular belief, there are no bright line rules as to what is and is not a fair use. For example, there’s no magic number of bars of music you can borrow or any certain number of seconds of a clip you can post or, as we’ll see, a prescribed portion of a photographic portrait that one is automatically free to use.

Rather, as the Supreme Court reiterated in the 1994 case Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, fair use is determined by the courts on a case by case basis using the four factors of Section 107:

1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

2. the nature of the copyrighted work;

3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In Campbell, the Supreme Court held that 2 Live Crew’s use of a portion of the Roy Orbison hit, Oh, Pretty Woman, in its similarly titled song, Pretty Woman, constituted a fair use parody of the Orbison song in that only so much of the original work as was necessary to comment on that original work was used in the 2 Live Crew recording. In its analysis of the first statutory factor, the Court cited with approval Judge Pierre N. Leval’s influential 1990 Harvard Law Review article, Toward a Fair Use Standard, as to whether the use of the Orbison in the 2 Live Crew work was “transformative,” in that “it adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning or message….” The Court, noted, however, that “transformative use is not absolutely necessary for a finding of fair use” but that “the goal of copyright, to promote science and the useful arts, is generally furthered by the creation of transformative works.”

Since Campbell, the Second Circuit, historically the nation’s second most important copyright court, took the “transformative use” ball and ran with it. Recent cases, such as the Google Books decision and Cariou v. Prince, held that copying of entire works constituted fair use on the basis that the use was “transformative.” Cariou, for example, involved Richard Prince’s alteration of entire photographs taken by Cariou. The Second Circuit held that the use was “transformative” and therefore a fair use, even though Prince’s works did not comment on Cariou’s, as was the case in Campbell. Any cursory Google search will yield a plethora of articles critical of Cariou.

This leads us to the Seventh Circuit and Kienitz. The case concerns a photo of the Mayor of Madison Wisconsin, Paul Soglin, taken by Kienitz. Soglin, with Kienitz’s approval, posted the portrait on the city’s website. The controversy arose because Soglin wanted to shut down an annual street party that he had once attended as a student many years before. Sensing some irony, defendant Sconnie Nation downloaded the headshot from the website, removed the background, changed the coloring and shading and added the slogan, “Sorry for Partying.” You can see the before and after pictures in the Court’s opinion. Sconnie Nation sold a total of 54 shirts, clearing a modest profit, and engendering the infringement action by Kienitz. Relying on Cariou, the parties argued whether or not defendant’s use of plaintiff’s photograph was “transformative”, with the District Court deciding that it was. Writing for the Seventh Circuit in his typically pithy manner, Judge Easterbook took a cynical view of this:

Fair use is a statutory defense to infringement. The Copyright Act sets out four non-exclusive factors for a court to consider. The district court and the parties have debated whether the t-shirts are a “transformative use” of the photo – and , if so, just how “transformative” the use must be. That’s not one of the statutory factors, though the Supreme Court mentioned it in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. The Second Circuit has run with the suggestion and concluded that “transformative use” is enough to bring a modified copy within the scope of §107. Cariou applied this to an example of “appropriation art,” in which some of the supposed value comes from the very fact that the work was created by someone else.

We’re skeptical of Cariou’s approach, because asking exclusively whether something is “transformative” not only replaces the list in §107 but could also override 17 U.S.C. §106(2), which protects derivative works. To say that a new use transforms the work is precisely to say that it is derivative and thus, one might suppose, protected under §106(2). Cariou and its predecessors in the Second Circuit do not explain how every “transformative use” can be “fair use” without extinguishing the author’s rights under §106(2).

We think it best to stick with the statutory list, of which the most important usually is the fourth (market effect). [Citations omitted]

In the remainder of its 7-page opinion, the Court went through each of the four factors and affirmed the District Court’s finding of fair use, noting that while non-copyrightable elements, such as the Mayor’s face, were used in the Sconnie Nation shirts, the copyrightable expression in Kienitz’ photo was largely expunged: “Defendants removed so much of the original that, as with the Cheshire Cat, only the smile remains.”

Despite its rejection of the Second Circuit’s approach, the Seventh Circuit reached the same conclusion as under a transformative use analysis. It remains to be seen whether any other courts will adopt the Seventh Circuit’s retro approach in eschewing “transformativeness” as the touchstone of fair use. And if so, will they then find against fair use in cases, as in Author’s Guild v. HathiTrust and Cariou, where far more copyrightable expression was retained in the wholesale copying of works? In sum, adoption of this “new” approach may not necessarily signal a reversal of the trend to expand fair use.

Finally, it would be interesting to see what the Court would have done if Soglin, a public figure, had filed suit for violation of his right of publicity in the unauthorized commercial use of his likeness, albeit one with political overtones.