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Interview on Music Publishing Podcast

Before the Memorial Day holiday, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by my friend and colleague, the composer Dennis Tobenski. Our 90-minute talk, which was posted last week, covered a variety of topics applicable to composers, songwriters and other creators, including copyright principles, fair use, the role of PROs and estate considerations for artists.

Here’s how Dennis summarized our discussion:

In our conversation, we talked about:

  • basic tenets of copyright
  • the limits of what is copyrightable
  • the Poor Man’s Copyright
  • the benefits of and incentives to registering your copyrights
  • fighting infringements
  • folio registrations
  • working with living poets vs. dead poets’ estates
  • Performing Rights Organizations
    • selecting
    • collecting performance royalties
    • what PROs don’t do
  • estate planning for artists
  • international copyright issues
  • why you should get permission <strong>before</strong> setting a text
  • First Sale Doctrine
  • licensing vs. selling
  • copying licenses
  • Fair Use
    • Fair Use is not a right; it is a defense against an infringement accusation*
    • the four factors of fair use
    • transformative use vs. derivative works
    • the false “rules of thumb” of fair use

And here’s the link to our talk:

 

Do Candidates Have The Right To Conscript Songs For Political Purposes?

[Note: This piece was previously posted on NewMusicBox, a site for composers and fans of contemporary classical and other experimental music, on September 24, 2015.]

It’s another presidential election cycle and—in addition to PAC moneymen, countless commercials, polls, trolls, sound bites, and sniping—there’s the new tradition of one candidate or another pissing off some well-known recording artist by using the artist’s song without consent. Already we’ve had Neil Young trashing Trump’s use of “Rockin’ in the Free World.” REM is suing Trump, along with Sen. Cruz, over their use of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” “Survivor” is suing over the use of “Eye of The Tiger” during Gov. Huckabee’s rally in support of Kim Davis, the county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue any marriage licenses since she’d have to issue them to same sex couples. And the election is still more than a year away!

Are the artists’ claims likely to be successful? Readers of my prior posts can probably postulate that my answer will be “it depends.” Let’s see what you can and can’t do when using recordings of songs in connection with political campaigns. While some of the dos and don’ts involve some now-familiar copyright and music licensing principles, others potentially involve the federal trademark statute and various states’ laws on the right of publicity as noted in ASCAP’s FAQs on music in political campaigns.

Who can forget The Donald riding down the escalator to the Neil Young classic to announce his candidacy? That use is probably permissible. If a venue, such as a hotel, convention center, or other public gathering place has licenses from the PROs (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC), then the use of the music is almost likely allowed and there’s not much the songwriters can do about it. The songwriters probably have a better case against Kim Davis and her cohorts, as the organizers of the impromptu outdoor post-prison rally probably didn’t obtain PRO licenses for the event.

Notice I mentioned songwriters and not recording artists. There has long been a public performance right in musical works and that right is codified in Section 106 of the Copyright Act. However, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, the US is one of less than a handful of nations, including North Korea and Iran, that doesn’t have a public performing right in sound recordings for traditional television and radio broadcasts or for playing the recording over loudspeakers. Although legislation has been introduced in recent years and the Copyright Office endorses such a right, currently the only public performance right in a sound recording is in “digital transmission,” i.e., internet streaming, and Sound Exchange is the U.S. collective that licenses those rights and pays out royalties on behalf of artists and labels.

Readers of my most recent post on fair use would not be surprised that the use of the clips of politicos and other notables on newscasts would be clear examples of fair use under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Before you even get to the four factors of Section 107, the statute states that items like “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research” are among the uses typically found to be fair. And TV networks and stations have PRO licenses to cover the music use.

Both songwriters and recording artists would have a compelling case under copyright law if a candidate used a song in a commercial without permission. Using pre-recorded music in any audio-visual work requires synch licenses from both the copyright owner of the song (the music publishers) and the copyright owner of the recording of the song (the label). As I explained in my last post, a fair use argument for this kind of usage would almost certainly fail, given that these uses are typically licensed. Nor could a candidate claim that the use of the music is permitted as First Amendment “political” speech. The First Amendment protects the right of individuals (and according to the Supreme Court, corporations) to freedom of expression, especially political speech. It doesn’t generally give you the unfettered right to use someone else’s expression, however.

But consideration of Copyright Act provisions isn’t the end of the inquiry here. Artists may also claim violations of Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, the federal trademark statute. Although it’s generally applied to false advertising claims, the statute could be used to claim that the association with an artist creates a “likelihood of confusion” based upon a misleading “association… with another person, or as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of his or her goods, services…” or in other words, a false or misleading endorsement of the candidate. So, regardless of PRO licenses, candidates would be well advised to get permission if they wanted to use anyone’s hit as a theme song.

Moreover, it’s possible that a candidate could violate an artist’s actual trademark, which would constitute a direct violation of the Lanham Act, which—like the Copyright Act—can subject an infringer to money damages and injunctive relief. While it’s not likely that a candidate would use a band’s trademarked logo, names and phrases associated with recording artists and other entertainers often are trademarked. Just see how fast Michael Buffer’s legal eagles will swoop down on you if you use the phrase, “let’s get ready to rumble” in any kind of commercial activity. Many artists, including Madonna, have trademarked their names, and Taylor Swift recently filed a whole bunch of trademark applications for phrases associated with her 1989 album. As any copyright maven knows, titles, names, short phrases, and slogans can’t be copyrighted. But they can be trademarked for all kinds of uses from apparel to greeting cards.

Then there’s the “right of publicity” (sometimes referred to as the right to privacy), which, unlike copyright and trademark, is governed by individual state’s laws. While many states have statutes governing this right, including New York and California, other states enforce these rights based on common law (judicial precedents). The right of publicity typically includes the use of an individual’s name and likeness for commercial purposes. That’s why songwriter, label, management, and other agreements typically have provisions granting the use of the person’s name and approved likeness and bio for a variety of uses. While most composers would hardly object to their music publisher or label using their name and image to promote their works, these rights don’t automatically flow with the copyrights to songs or recordings of them. A candidate’s using a song without permission could constitute a violation of the artist’s publicity/privacy rights.

And there’s another wrinkle to the right of publicity. In some states, like California, a celebrity’s right to exploit his persona extends beyond the grave. In others, like New York, the right terminates when the individual does. So, in addition to wills, trusts, and other documents, if you’re a celebrity, a very important aspect of estate planning is deciding upon your domicile at the time of your eventual demise.

So, what have we learned here? Campaigners, much like cover bands, should be careful about using songs. If you’re paying tribute to a band by simply performing covers of their songs in a venue that’s got PRO licenses, then you’re almost certainly okay. But if you start selling hats, T-shirts, and mugs emblazoned with the band’s logo, a picture of its members, or a well-known phrase from one of their songs, or use the songs to sell products or services, then you’d better be prepared to pay tribute in the form of cold cash as you could run afoul of trademark and publicity laws.

One would think that politicians and their advisors would know this by now. Given that there are artists on every point in the political spectrum, a candidate could simply solicit one sympathetic to their views and avoid all sorts of tsuris. So when it comes to using someone else’s stuff, whether in political campaigns or artistic collages, when in doubt, leave it out. Or as I’ve said before, you might want to seek consent of the rights holder (or the advice of competent counsel) before putting it in.

Are Transformative Fair Use Principles Foul To Musicians?

[Note: This is part two of a two-part article that was previously posted on NewMusicBox, a site for composers and fans of contemporary classical and other experimental music, on September 17, 2015.]

In my previous post, I sped through the history of fair use from Justice Story to the current statute and strolled through a few examples of the analysis that’s typically used when applying the four factors of Section 107 of the Copyright Act, the statutory test for fair use.

But while courts always construe the statutory factors, the “real” fair use test—at least since the mid-1990s—is nowhere in the statute. Instead, the dispositive inquiry is whether the usage is “transformative.” So, what is “transformative use” and where did it come from?

A) Transformative Use, Music and Parody

The “transformative use” test comes from an influential 1990 Harvard Law Review article by Judge Pierre N. Leval. But since neither articles, books, nor blog posts have any legal effect unless adopted by a court (or legislature), it’s the Supreme Court’s casting of Judge Leval’s concept that defines “transformative use.” In the 1994 case, Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, the high court, citing the Leval article in its analysis under the first factor, defined “transformative use” as follows:

The central purpose of this investigation is to see, in Justice Story’s words, whether the new work merely “supersede[s] the objects” of the original creation (“supplanting” the original), or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message; it asks, in other words, whether and to what extent the new work is “transformative.” (Citations omitted).

If that sounds kind of vague, it is. And while ambiguity is often cultivated in the arts, it’s not so good in a legal standard. And as applied, it sometimes seems like a transformative use of Justice Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” test.

In Campbell, the Supreme Court established that parody can be a form of fair use. The case concerned 2 Live Crew’s use of part of the Roy Orbison hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman,” in their similarly titled song,Pretty Woman,” despite being denied permission for the usage.  The band used the introductory guitar riff and the first part of the chorus before moving on to new material that was deemed to mock the original tune. The Court found that 2 Live Crew’s use of Orbison song was “transformative” in that it did not merely reproduce and appropriate the original composition.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court established guidelines for determining whether a use would be a “parody” in the legal sense, i.e., one for which permission of the copyright owner of the parodied work would not be required: first, only so much as is necessary to conjure up the original work was to be used; and second, the parody must comment in some way on the original work. In other words, it wouldn’t be a “fair use” parody to write new lyrics to an underlying song that talked about something else. And as the Supreme Court noted, a parody protected by fair use need not be funny or artistically successful.

In other words, one can’t write new lyrics to every line in a Michael Jackson song as an ode to multifarious foodstuffs and expect it to be a protected parody. That’s why Weird Al gets permission for his “parodies” even though he obliquely cites fair use on his website.

These principles were more recently applied in Bourne Co. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., a 2009 decision from the Southern District of New York (district courts being the federal trial courts) involving the Family Guy episode, “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein.” The show featured a song called “I Need a Jew” that used elements of the Disney classic, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Defendants, including the show’s auteur, Seth MacFarlane, had sought permission from Bourne but were denied.

MacFarlane had the chutzpah to use it anyway and the court concluded that Peter Griffin’s plaintive pleading was a fair use parody of Jiminy Cricket’s crooning in Pinocchio. Relying on Campbell, the Supremes stated: “[t]he Court finds that the new work is transformative; consequently, the first factor weighs in favor of a finding of fair use.”

B) Transformative Use in Dramatic and Visual Arts Cases

But now let’s look at a 2015 parody case from the same court involving another of the performing arts. In Adjmi v. DLT Entertainment, Ltd, the Southern District held that an Off-Broadway stage play, 3C, was a fair use parody of the iconic seventies sitcom, Three’s Company. There, “[t]he parties agree that 3C copies the plot, premise, characters, sets and certain scenes from Three’s Company.” After applying the four factors, the Court held:

The Play is a highly transformative parody of the television series that, although it appropriates a substantial amount of Three’s Company, is a drastic departure from the original that poses little risk to the market for the original.

Apparently, as long as you’re not mocking music, it seems you can take an awful lot of material, including entire scenes, so long as you’re making some sort of statement about the original.

But most fair use cases don’t involve parodies. Moving to the visual arts, Blanch v. Koons, addresses notorious appropriation artist Jeff Koons’s incorporation of—among other images—a cropped, rotated, and altered portion of a copyrighted photograph of a woman’s legs and feet from a shoe ad into a massive collage painting. The Second Circuit (circuit courts being the federal appeals courts between the district courts and the Supreme Court) held that Koons’s use of the magazine ad photo was transformative in that his change of colors, background, media, and size of the objects had an entirely different purpose and meaning from the original, as Koons’s work was commenting on “the social and aesthetic consequences of mass media.”

In the 2013 case Cariou v. Prince, the Second Circuit moved the dial further towards finding transformative (and therefore fair) use in appropriation art. At issue were 35 of Cariou’s black and white photographic portraits of Jamaican Rastafarians that were published in a book and which Richard Prince incorporated into large-scale artwork that altered the images, including cropping, coloring, and obscuring faces with painted “lozenges.” Some of Cariou’s and Prince’s works were reprinted in the court’s opinion. The Court found fair use with respect to 25 of the photos, reversing the district court’s contention that the “transformative use” had to comment somehow on the original photos as in parody cases:

The law imposes no requirement that a work comment on the original or its author in order to be considered transformative, and a secondary work may constitute a fair use even if it serves some purpose other than those (criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research) identified in the preamble to the statute.

As to the remaining five Cariou photos, the Court noted that “Prince did little more than paint blue lozenges over the subject’s eyes and mouth, and paste a picture of a guitar over the subject’s body.” What’s striking, however, is that even with respect to these uses, the Second Circuit thought that even they could be deemed to constitute fair use and kicked the case back to the district court to make that determination. As we’ll see, the Cariou court’s expansive view of transformative use has its critics.

The Second Circuit has also ruled that the copying of entire posters, albeit in greatly reduced size, in a 480-page coffee table book about the Grateful Dead was fair game. The images appeared along with timelines and commentary about the band. The Court’s opinion stated that “the first fair use factor weighs in favor of [defendant] because [defendant’s] use of [plaintiff’s] images is transformatively different from the images’ original expressive purpose and [defendant] does not seek to exploit the images’ expressive value for commercial gain.” In reaching this conclusion, the Court cited an earlier case which held a search engine’s use of thumbnail reproductions of images was highly transformative. In case you were wondering, this is why I’m pretty sure my reduced-scale cell phone photo of the Chutzpah game reprinted in last week’s post is likely a transformative fair use.

C) A Fair Use Remix: Applying the Standards From Non-Music Cases to Musical Examples

But as this post is running long and my readers’ patience is no doubt growing short, let’s see what happens when we apply standards from these other cases to a few music hypotheticals:

1. As we know, reproducing an entire visual work, although in greatly reduced size, can be considered a transformative, and ultimately fair, use. Now imagine posting an entire John Adams or John Corigliano score, or even the complete sheet music to a Taylor Swift song – in miniature – without permission.

2. We also know from the Three’s Company case that taking entire scenes from a TV show is now fair game if you’re doing a parody of the underlying work. Now envision using a whole scene from an Adams opera or Sondheim musical or an entire Beatles song in a musical parody.

3. We’ve also learned from the appropriation art cases that taking recognizable portions of copyrighted works and creating a collage or visual remix can be a transformative fair use. Now try claiming fair use when taking twenty seconds of a recording of “Satisfaction” or any other famous song and putting it into a film or sampling several snippets of it in your own recording.

4. As was demonstrated in the Koons and Cariou cases, the recasting—including changing the color and background of a work—can be a transformative use. Now picture “recasting” the setting of an orchestral work by “coloring” it for concert band.

I’m guessing that most of my musician readers are chuckling at these, knowing that it would take chutzpah to claim any of the above to be a “fair use” of the music. Working backwards, we call the fourth example making an “arrangement” for which permission is clearly required. The two uses in the third hypothetical are typical examples requiring synch and sampling licenses, respectively. As for the second hypothetical, we know from the Family Guy decision that the more restrictive standard set out in the 2 Live Crew case two decades earlier still applies to musical parodies. And anyone who posts an entire piece of copyrighted music stands a good chance of being subject to a DMCA takedown notice or worse, as reprints of only a few bars are typically licensed.

Mind you, I’ve only cited a handful of the myriad fair use cases and all of them so far have been from courts in New York City. While federal courts throughout the country hear copyright cases, the New York decisions are particularly influential because of the copyright-based industries centered there, such as publishing, music, theater, advertising, and fashion. And not surprisingly, Judge Leval, the progenitor of transformative use, served as a judge both in the Southern District and on the Second Circuit.

If you’ve read my arrangements post you may be thinking that this whole “transformative use” thing sounds a lot like making a “derivative work,” something the copyright owner has the right to grant or deny approval. You’re not alone and last year at least the Seventh Circuit, in finding fair use in another appropriation art case, agreed:

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]

[Click here for my more recent and detailed discussion of tranformative fair use versus protected derivative works in light of Judge Leval’s Google Books opinion.]

So why does music seem to have more restrictive standards for fair use than other creative arts? A clue is in the quotes from the cases. With respect to music, there’s a well-established market for these uses, including licensing arrangements, reprints, synchs, and samples, all of which are treated as derivative works. And courts are very reluctant to disrupt the marketplace— even one as dysfunctional as music licensing. This goes back to the first principles of the Copyright Clause, to Justice Story’s fair use test from nearly 175 years ago (“…the degree in which the use may prejudice the sale, or diminish the profits…”) and the fourth factor of Section 107. Ironically, it was the famous Southern District “Thou shalt not steal” case that essentially created the sampling marketplace.

And given the steep decline in mechanical royalties and the paltry payments from streaming, permissions, synch, and sampling uses are among the few areas where musical creators can reasonably be compensated. Do we really want to change this in order to expand fair use? While doing so would greatly enlarge the creative pallet available for new works, it would deny the owners of existing works the fundamental right to say “no” to uses of their works they don’t like and limit the creators of both the underlying and new works to profit from them. Whether or not such a reshaping of the fair use landscape is a good thing or not is a policy debate to be had elsewhere.

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So what does our slog through the thicket of fair use jurisprudence tell us? Clearly, fair use is a continually evolving doctrine and in recent years some courts and commentators have viewed fair use broadly, like a “right” at least as applied to creative works other than musical ones. In fact, in a bit of hot news, on September 14, the Ninth Circuit in California issued a 34-page fair use opinion in the “dancing baby” case, the one where a mom posted a 29-second video on YouTube that showed her toddler dancing to Prince’s song, ”Let’s Go Crazy” and Prince’s publisher, Universal Music, told her to take it down.

The Court held that a copyright owner must consider whether the online usage is protected by fair use prior to sending a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA). In reaching this decision, the Ninth Circuit confronted the issue of whether a fair use is an “affirmative defense” or a “right” and, at least for purposes of the DMCA, views it more like a right as fair use is “authorized by law.” Of course, any “consideration” of fair use involves application of the detailed analysis discussed above, including the application of “transformative use” under the Section 107 factors and increasingly complicated case law.

So how should one determine if a use is fair or foul? Especially if you’re a musician, you should be guided by the preamble to Section 107 and focus on traditional areas like “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” Otherwise, be prepared to seek permission or at least the counsel of an experienced lawyer so that you don’t take a gamble on fair use and make schlimazels of your collaborators, commissioners, publishers, and presenters.

Do You Have The Chutzpah To Take A Gamble On Fair Use?

[Note: This is part one of a two-part article that was previously posted on NewMusicBox, a site for composers and fans of contemporary classical and other experimental music, on September 10, 2015.]

When I was a kid, my siblings and I played a board game called Chutzpah, which is a lot like Monopoly only the “properties” weren’t things like Boardwalk, Park Place, and Marvin Gardens but Son Marky’s Bar Mitzvah with Velvet Yarmulkes, Weekend in the Catskills, and Yacht Named Gevalt III. And rather than draw cards labeled Community Chest or Chance, you had four options: Schlemiel, Schlemazel, Chutzpah, and Do You Want to Take a Gamble. And instead of getting thrown in jail, you’d miss a turn if you landed on a “tsoris spot”—which is not the same as a tourist spot, I assure you!

For those of you who didn’t grow up in New York or laughing to Jewish comedians, here are brief explanations for these lovely Yiddish words. You’re at a dinner party and the guy next to you spills hot soup in your lap. The spiller is the schlemiel and you, the spillee, are the schlemazel. Tsoris means all manner of troubles, like getting the proverbial boil on your behind. And the concept of chutzpah (blandly translated as “guts” or “nerve” and more colorfully exemplified by variations on the theme of having a brass pair) is best illustrated with this classic example: a young man murders his parents and then pleads for mercy because he’s an orphan.

So, you wanna play? C’mon over to my place and I’ll break out the original 1967 edition. In the meantime, try your hand at the titular test, otherwise known as “Everything You’ve Heard about Fair Use is Probably Wrong.” It’s always a gamble as to whether something is or isn’t a fair use and, in my humble opinion, courts have recently shown a lot of chutzpah in making the determination.

Today’s “spot the fair use” game (not to be confused with “spot the looney”) consists of just two multiple choice questions:

1. How many of the following statements are true?

A) People have fair use rights.
B) There are specific rules on what is and isn’t a fair use.
C) Fair use determinations are governed by a particular provision of the Copyright Act.
D) Every determination of fair use must be made on a case-by-case basis.
E) Fair use is a defense to copyright infringement.

2. Assuming each example involves a use of a work still under copyright, which of the following constitutes fair use?

A) Reprinting or quoting four bars of music
B) Posting a 30-second clip of song or a movie on your web site
C) Putting only one line of a lyric on a T-shirt
D) Creating a painting that incorporates but modifies a pre-existing image
E) All of the above
F) None of the above
G) It depends

As for the first answer, the correct response is C, D and E. The answer to the second question is G. (That’s also the answer you’re most likely to get when you ask a lawyer a question, assuming he doesn’t first respond with two more questions.)

Now, in order to explain these answers, I’ll need to provide a little background with the caveat that, for true copyright mavens, my jaunt into the forest of fair use jurisprudence is kind of like the Classic Comics or Cliff’s Notes version of a copyright casebook.

Fair use was originally an English common law (case law) doctrine that was first incorporated into US law in the 1841 Supreme Court case Folsom v. Marsh. Writing for the Court, Justice Story (yes, that was his name) set forth a multi-factor test to determine fair use: “Look to the nature and objects of the selections made, the quantity and value of the materials used, and the degree in which the use may prejudice the sale, or diminish the profits, or supersede the objects, of the original work.” Ever since the current federal Copyright Law became effective in 1978, a restatement of Justice Story’s fair use test has been codified in Section 107 of the statute, which states:

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—

(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.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

So what do we learn from parsing the previous paragraph? First, fair use is governed by a specific statutory provision. Second, as the Supreme Court made clear in the 1994 case Campbell v. Acuff Rose Music (concerning 2 Live Crew’s parody of the Orbison classic, “Oh, Pretty Woman” and which I’ll be discussing in my next post), a determination of fair use involves the application and weighing of the four statutory factors and therefore “is not to be simplified with bright line rules, for the statute, like the doctrine it recognizes, calls for case by case analysis.” Third, as Judge Easterbrook reminded us in a case from last year, “[f]air use is a statutory defense to infringement.” It’s not a “right,” despite whatever Prof. Lessig and his acolytes may write. So there’s your answer to the first question.

Explaining the answer to the second question involves applying the foregoing factors to each situation, although in the interest of brevity, I won’t apply all four to each example.

A. Reprinting or quoting four bars of music

Let’s look at the third factor first. Which four bars are you using? Is it the main hook in the chorus of your favorite pop song or four measures of the verse? Or for a classical work, would you be using four bars of the iconic brass theme from Fanfare for the Common Man or a few measures from the percussion parts? Not all four measures of a work are of equal importance—especially in songs. Let’s also consider the first factor. Are you reprinting four measures from a Beatles song in a scholarly article on their use of modal harmonies or are you taking the title hook from She Loves You” and putting it in your own commercially released song (fourth factor as well)? In each example, the first use is more likely to be considered a fair use than the second.

B. Posting a 30-second clip of song or a movie on your web site

Again, considering the third factor, which thirty seconds are you using? It makes a difference whether you’re posting a critical “spoiler” scene from a newly released blockbuster (which also affects the fourth factor) as opposed to a clip from the official trailer which is intended for promotional purposes. Also, are you posting clips because you’re a fan of the band or the film and you’re linking to places where you can legitimately purchase the works or are you using these clips to link either to pirate sites or as a means to get eyeballs on your site to sell your own stuff? This involves consideration of the first and fourth factors.

C. Putting only one line of a lyric on a T-shirt

I’ll bet you can see where this is going: Which line—one from the chorus that includes the song’s title (although titles are not copyrightable) or a line from the middle of the third verse (third factor)? Are you selling these for profit or using them as an inspirational slogan to raise funds for a charity (first and fourth factors)?

D. Creating a painting that incorporates but modifies a pre-existing image

Okay, I’ll bet you’re getting pretty good at this game by now. Are you incorporating the entire image, the main focus of the image, or just something in the background of the image (third factor)? Are you incorporating a black and white photograph and adding color, changing the perspective, or distorting the image (second factor)? Are you selling your painting in a gallery or using it to demonstrate painting techniques to art students (first and fourth factors)?

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All of the foregoing are examples of the analysis that lawyers and judges use in determining whether an unauthorized use of a copyrighted work constitutes infringement or fair use, and none are definitively permissible. No simple bright-line rules; just an ad hoc analysis fudging the application of four statutory factors.

Now what if I said that everything I just told you is wrong (or at least not entirely right) because the courts had the chutzpah to change the rules of the game? And what if I also told you that fair use is far more narrowly applied to music than to any other art form? Would you still want to take a gamble that your usage of somebody else’s stuff isn’t infringing? Getting it wrong could bring you a lot of tsoris. So tune in next week when I discuss how the application of the concept of “transformative use” sometimes seems like a “parody” of traditional fair use analysis.

Google Books’ Dubious Distinction Between Transformative Use and Derivative Works

Given its prior ruling in last year’s substantially similar HathiTrust case, the Second Circuit’s October 16 decision in The Author’s Guild v. Google, Inc. was as inevitable as the Cubs failing to win the World Series. Still those in the content creating community feel it’s fundamentally unfair that Google gets to scan millions of copyrighted books in their entirety without paying a dime for the privilege under the banner of fair use. The opinion, written by Judge Pierre N. Leval (Mr. Transformative Use, himself), not surprisingly held that Google’s usage was a transformative, and therefore fair, use under the Supreme Court’s 1994 decision in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, which had relied upon Judge Leval’s own Harvard Law Review article advocating a transformative use analysis.

The facts are briefly as follows: Google digitally scanned more than 20 million of books that were submitted by participating university libraries – but without the consent of the rights holders – to create a searchable database for these materials. In return, the submitting library gets a digital copy of each work it submitted, providing that the library agrees to use the digital copy only in compliance with copyright laws. The database, which can be searched online by the public for free, provides a list of works containing the key terms searched as well as snippets from each book containing the search terms in context. Google has built in safeguards that limit the number of snippets and the amount of text displayed so that a searcher cannot obtain a copy of the book, or a substantial portion of it, simply by doing repeated searches.

I’ll leave it to others to critique the Court’s analysis of the finding of fair use under the four factors of Section 107 of the Copyright Act. My focus is on the opinion’s distinction between “transformative” fair uses of copyrighted works, for which no permission is needed, and the creation of “derivative works” as defined in Section 101 and for which authorization from the copyright owner is required pursuant to Section 106(2).

Judge Leval, in pages 17 through 19 of his opinion, including a lengthy footnote 18, appears to address the Seventh Circuit’s issues with the transformative test, particularly as voiced in Judge Easterbrook’s opinion in last year’s Kienitz case, which I’ve previously written about. Kienitz concerned alterations to a copyrighted photograph of the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin. The District Court found that the usage was fair, relying on a “transformative use” analysis.

Although the Seventh Circuit affirmed the result, it rejected the transformative use approach as articulated in the Second Circuit’s much-criticized Cariou decision, finding a conflict with protected derivative works:

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)

While agreeing with Judge Easterbrook that the fourth factor is the most important, Judge Leval also noted that the Supreme Court stressed the importance of the first factor, the “purpose and character of the use,” in making a determination of fair use. Citing Campbell (but coyly omitting the Supreme Court’s approving citation – more than Judge Easterbrook’s mere mention – of his own seminal article promulgating the concept of transformative use), Judge Leval wrote: “The more the appropriator is using the copied material for new, transformative purposes, the more it serves copyright’s goal of enriching public knowledge and the less likely it is that the appropriation will serve as a substitute for the original or its plausible derivatives, shrinking the protected market opportunities of the copyrighted work.”

Judge Leval further elaborated: “In other words, transformative uses tend to favor a fair use finding because a transformative use is one that communicates something new and different from the original or expands its utility, thus serving copyright’s overall objective of contributing to public knowledge.” But, as the Court’s opinion cautions: “The word ‘transformative’ cannot be taken too literally as a sufficient key to understanding the elements of fair use. It is rather a suggestive symbol for a complex thought, and does not mean that any and all changes made to an author’s original text will support a finding of fair use.“ Fair enough, but how is this dictum helpful in practice?

Here’s how the Second Circuit addressed the tension between transformative fair use and protected derivative works:

A further complication that can result from the oversimplified reliance on whether the copying involves transformation is that the word “transform” also plays a role in defining “derivative works,” over which the original rights holder retains exclusive control…..The statute defines derivative works largely by example, rather than explanation. The examples include “translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgement, condensation,” to which list the statute adds “any other form in which a work may be…transformed (emphasis added). As we noted in Author’s Guild v. HathiTrust, “[p]aradigmatic examples of derivative works include the translation of a novel into another language, the adaptation of a novel into a movie or play, or the recasting of a novel as an e-book or an audiobook.” While such changes can be described as transformations, they do not involve the kind of transformative purpose that favors a fair use finding. The statutory definitions suggest that derivative works generally involve transformations in the nature of changes of form. By contrast, copying from an original for the purpose of criticism or commentary on the original or provision of information about it, tends most clearly to satisfy Campbell’s notion of the “transformative” purpose involved in the analysis of Factor One.” (Citations omitted)

I’m doubtful the foregoing answers Judge Easterbrook because even this formulation of transformative use sounds like it could cover a lot of protected derivative works as translations and abridgements of texts and arrangements of musical works surely expand their utility and often communicate something new. For example, the Southern District of New York recently held that taking the characters, settings and entire scenes from the TV series, Three’s Company, and adapting them into a stage play (a mere “change of form” and presumably a derivative work under Judge Leval’s revised formulation), was a transformative fair use that parodied the original.

As I’ve previously written, the transformative use test remains amorphous and something akin to a restatement of Justice Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” standard where wholesale copying of large swaths or entire works can be found to be fair use if transformative. As the Court concluded in its epic footnote 18: “Attempts to find a circumspect shorthand for a complex concept are best understood as suggestive of a general direction, rather than as definitive descriptions.” Yeah, right.

Despite the not terribly helpful attempts to define the ineffable, the quoted portion of the Court’s opinion does posit two instances of transformative use that do not appear to conflict with the general understanding of what constitutes a derivative work: 1) where the use of the underlying work is to comment on or criticize it; and 2) where the use provides information about the work. The Second Circuit cited Campbell as an instance of the former and clearly views Google’s actions as an example of the latter:

Google’s making of a digital copy to provide a search function is a transformative use, which augments public knowledge by making available information about Plaintiffs’ books without providing the public with a substantial substitute for matter protected by the Plaintiffs’ copyright interests in the original works or derivatives of them.

However, in Campbell, the Supreme Court pointed out that the musical parody of Roy Orbison’s iconic “Oh, Pretty Woman,” used only as much as was needed to conjure and comment upon the original song. Here, the Second Circuit blesses the copying of millions of complete works in the name of transformative use. There’s no doubt that Google’s database is incredibly useful and can provide substantial benefits to the public. However, as with derivative works, there are lots of really useful and beneficial things for which licenses are routinely obtained.

Transformative use analysis can be a helpful tool in applying the first statutory factor but it shouldn’t override all four §107 factors as it seems to do under current Second Circuit jurisprudence. And however formulated, it doesn’t adequately distinguish between fair and derivative uses. There is, however, one other point on which the estimable judges Leval and Easterbrook agree: fair use is an affirmative defense, as pointed out in Campbell. However, this seems to conflict with the Ninth’s Circuit’s recent opinion in the “dancing baby case” where, in the context of DMCA takedown notices, it states that fair use is something that is substantively “authorized by law.” Perhaps it’s time once again for the Supreme Court to transform fair use jurisprudence by providing some clarity to the concept.

Did the Joker Write the Ninth Circuit’s Batmobile Decision?

In DC Comics v. Towle, the Ninth Circuit recently upheld the district court’s summary judgment determination that the Batmobile, as it appeared in at least two very different iterations created more than twenty years apart, constitutes a single copyrighted “character.” No joke.

The case involved Towle’s creating and selling Batmobile replicas, specifically the car used in the campy 1960s series starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader and the one used in the 1989 feature film starring Michael Keaton. Both the original vehicles and Towle’s replicas are pictured in the appedices to the Court’s opinion, which I strongly encourage my gentle readers to examine before proceeding further.

The Court commenced its learned discourse by exclaiming, “Holy copyright, Batman!” Following that was a discussion of the copyrightability of characters, citing such precedents as James Bond, Godzilla and Batman himself, all of whom have appeared in various guises over the years. Curiously, nowhere does the Court refer to any particular copyright registration for the Batmobile (or even one for any particular comic book issue depicting it, for that matter) despite summarily rejecting Towle’s argument on that point in a footnote.

The Court distilled its discourse on copyright in a character into a tripartite test:

We read these precedents as establishing a three-part test for determining whether a character in a comic book, television program, or motion picture is entitled to copyright protection. First, the character must generally have “physical as well as conceptual qualities.” Second, the character must be “sufficiently delineated” to be recognizable as the same character whenever it appears. Considering the character as it has appeared in different productions, it must display consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes, although the character need not have a consistent appearance. Third, the character must be “especially distinctive” and “contain some unique elements of expression.” It cannot be a stock character such as a magician in standard magician garb. Even when a character lacks sentient attributes and does not speak (like a car), it can be a protectable character if it meets this standard. (Citations omitted).

Now let’s briefly examine how the Court determined that the Batmobile satisfies this standard. The Court found that the Batmobile has “physical as well as conceptual qualities” in that the car is always “sufficiently delineated” in that it’s “equipped with high-tech gadgets and weaponry used to aid Batman in fighting crime” and that is “almost always bat-like in appearance.” The Court also noted that “[n]o matter its specific physical appearance, the Batmobile is a ‘crime-fighting’ car with sleek and powerful characteristics that allow Batman to maneuver quickly while he fights villains.” The Court further stressed: “Equally important, the Batmobile always contains the most up-to-date weaponry and technology.”

Let’s unpack this for a moment by substituting “Buick” for “Batmobile.” Does anyone really believe the state-of-the art technology in a 1966 Buick even remotely resembles that of a 1989 or 2015 model? And while the Batmobile “almost always” has bat-like features, how much does a 1966 Buick Regal bear any resemblance to its 1989 counterpart other than in its name? Or in copyright speak, assuming there was a registration for the design of the 1966 car, what copyrightable elements (expression) are incorporated into the 1989 version to merit it being considered a derivative work of the prior model? Indeed, do the two cars in question in this case look anything alike other than both being long and black? Moreover, the Court noted that Towle’s replicas did not exactly copy the originals used in the TV show and the film, although he did sell kits and accessories to customize the cars to more closely resemble them.

What the Court is describing sounds more like the “idea” of the Batmobile rather than any particular expression of it. The Court’s justification for copyrightable status seems to fly in the face of idea/expression dichotomy, codified in Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act in that ideas can’t be copyrighted, but only the particular expression of them. And that’s the problem in granting copyright protection to characters, especially those with non-speaking roles.

Plaintiff’s tiff with Towle seems to have been driven by his calling his replicas “Batmobiles” and trading upon that name, including using the domain name, batmobilereplicas.com. That, of course, is the province of the trademark law, not that of copyright, as names, titles and short phrases aren’t copyrightable. DC Comic’s complaint, did, in fact, allege trademark infringement and a cursory review of the PTO’s online database shows no fewer than four live registrations under the “Batmobile” moniker.

But assuming the Joker did not write the opinion, the Ninth Circuit hath now decreed that the Batmobile is a copyrighted character. So as the Riddler would say, riddle me this:

Since the Court did not identify any specific copyright registration, how long does the copyright in the Batmobile last? Assuming we can pin a date on any early version, it would seem that an ancient avatar would eventually fall into the public domain, although original, copyrightable features added to later iterations could not freely be used so long as they remained under copyright — at least following the Sherlock-like logic of Judge Posner’s 2014 opinion in Klinger v Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd. In other words, at some point the 1960s Batmobile will be free for joy rides across the public domain while the 1989 model may not be.

And as I’m assaying the character of the Riddler, I’ll throw one out that my criminal colleague, the Joker, would truly enjoy:

We know from the Supreme Court’s decision in Campbell v. Acuff Rose Music, that parody is a form of fair use. And recent decisions have held that in some circumstances entire characters and scenes as well as entire works of visual art can be copied for fair use purposes, including parody. Since we know that Towle didn’t copy the copyrighted cars completely, what if instead of black, he had painted his replicas pink with purple polka dots and called them Clown Caper Cars instead of Batmobiles? Couldn’t that be construed as a comedic commentary on the serious, macho characteristics of the Caped Crusader and his avenging automobile?

And let’s magnify the mischief by assuming that Towle whispers in his buyer’s ear that she can paint the clown car black once it’s paid for and she drives it off the lot. Wouldn’t that be an application of the first sale doctrine under Section 109(b) in that “the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord.” At least viewed through the lens of the Ninth Circuit’s brand new dancing baby case, a fair use of a work, such as “transforming” it into a protected parody, constitutes a new work that is “lawfully made.” Perhaps a future Special Guest Villain will have better luck if he avails himself of clever legal counsel prior to producing copycat cars.

Finally, if the Batmobile is now a copyrightable character, will Wonder Woman’s bracelets and Thor’s hammer be appearing as characters in cases at a courthouse near you?

Unfortunately, we can’t tune in tomorrow for the solution to these copyright conundrums as they will be riddles for future courts to unravel.

Why The Copyright Office’s New Fair Use Index Rates Only Fair At Best

The Copyright Office recently issued several well-considered studies and recommendations, like the music licensing report. And Register Pallante has been bold in her call to Congress for increased independence and resources so as to best serve all copyright constituents in the digital age. So I take no pleasure in crying foul over the Copyright Office’s recently-released Fair Use Index. However well-intentioned, this searchable database of mere case summaries is only likely to create more confusion among non-lawyer creators and users in an already murky, misunderstood and evolving area of the law.

To be fair, the Copyright Office’s news release for the database emphasizes its limited scope:

Although not a substitute for legal advice, the Index is searchable by court and subject matter and provides a helpful starting point for those wishing to better understand how the federal courts have applied the fair use doctrine to particular categories of works or types of use, for example, music, internet/digitization, or parody.

The database’s home page contains similar disclaimers: “[a]lthough the Fair Use Index should prove helpful in understanding what courts have to date considered to be fair or not fair, it is not a substitute for legal advice.” Click on the link, More Information on Fair Use, and you’ll get a one-page summary of the four factor test of Section 107 of the Copyright Act, the broad guidelines for determining fair use. However, the most important point is buried at the bottom of the page:

Courts evaluate fair use claims on a case-by-case basis, and the outcome of any given case depends on a fact-specific inquiry. This means that there is no formula to ensure that a predetermined percentage or amount of a work—or specific number of words, lines, pages, copies—may be used without permission.

The above quote should be in bold, blinking print at the top of the search page, not buried at the bottom of a link for “more information.” That’s because what most people think they know about fair use is wrong.

So what do you get if you search the database? First, you can select whether you want to search cases in the Supreme Court and/or those within any or all of the thirteen federal circuits, including the district courts  – but without any explanation of the federal court system such as what a “circuit” is.  You can also search within these courts under any or all of sixteen subject matter topics, such as computer program, music, internet/digitization, and parody/satire.

Let’s search “music” in all courts. The result is a list of seventeen cases in reverse chronological order.  But there’s no hierarchy to them so the first case is from the Central District of California and the lone Supreme Court case, Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., appears near the bottom. The list is in columns, stating the case name (including the citation), the year, the court, the jurisdiction (i.e., circuit), category (e.g., parody/satire) and the outcome (i.e., stating whether fair use was or was not found). Since there’s no explanation of court precedents, a non-lawyer wouldn’t necessarily know that a California district court decision isn’t binding in the Second Circuit, even if it’s more recent.

Now let’s look at the Campbell case summary. In one page we get the year, the court, key facts, the issue, the holding, tags (e.g., parody/satire) and the outcome, in this case a “[p]reliminary ruling, mixed result or remand.” Here’s the holding:

The Court reversed the Sixth Circuit, finding that it had erred in giving dispositive weight to the commercial nature of 2 Live Crew’s parody and in applying an evidentiary presumption that the commercial nature of the parody rendered it unfair. The Court held that the commercial or nonprofit educational purpose of a work is only one element of its purpose and character. Like other uses, parody “has to work its way through the relevant factors, and be judged case by case, in light of the ends of the copyright law.” The Court commented that it is essential for someone doing a parody to be able to quote from existing material and use some of the elements of a prior work to create a new one that comments on the original. The case was remanded for further proceedings.

How is this helpful to a songwriter trying to determine if her parody of a song is a fair use or not? The summaries read like the canned Casenotes briefs one used in law school (here’s an example) only not as good and without the casebook or instruction from a professor for context.

The home page does explain up front that “[the summary] does not include the court opinions themselves” and that “[w]e have provided the full legal citation, however, allowing those who wish to read the actual decisions to access them through free online resources….” But there’s no explanation for the lay person as to what these citations, e.g., 510 U.S. 569 (1994), mean. And how many users will read the cases without hot links to them? Moreover, the database provides no guidance where cases may have contrary holdings on similar facts – as fair use cases often do. Nor can a relatively small number of cases adequately track recent trends in fair use decisions.

How could the database be improved? A few more signposts such as such I’ve suggested would help. The Copyright Office might also produce a circular (brochure) on fair use, stating some broad guidelines to provide context for the case summaries. The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, recently issued by the College Art Association, although not without its critics, is a good example.

The database won’t be helpful to lawyers who have access to services like Westlaw and Lexis because there are so few cases currently on the site and the commercial services are updated continuously.  But because the Index is produced with the authority of the Copyright Office, non-lawyers are likely to rely on the summaries rather than reading the actual cases or consulting a lawyer – despite the disclaimers.  Since “a little learning is a dangerous thing,” creators and users may then find themselves in litigation land, leading to greater legal fees than if they’d talked to their attorney in the first place. So while I’d rate the Copyright Office’s effort as “excellent,” the utility of the Fair Use Index is only “fair” at best.

The Broad Comedy and Broader Parody of Three’s Company

What’s worse than sitting through seven episodes of Three’s Company? Reading a federal district judge’s summaries of them. And yet that CliffsNotes analysis, including delving into the cultural significance of the fluffy sitcom, takes up much of the 56-page opinion recently issued by Loretta Preska, Chief Judge of the Southern District of New York. In Adjmi v. DLT Entertainment, Ltd., the court held that plaintiff’s Off-Broadway play, 3C, is a fair use parody of the entire TV series.

Although styled as a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings, the voluminous exhibits to those pleadings included DVDs of all 9 seasons of the series (owned by DLT) as well as Adjmi’s script to 3C, curiously referred to as the “screenplay” throughout the opinion. Judge Preska is no stranger to parody cases, having written the opinion that was affirmed by the Second Circuit in Liebovitz v. Paramount Pictures, which held that a photo of a seemingly pregnant Leslie Nielson of The Naked Gun fame was a fair use parody of the famous Vanity Fair cover of a nude and pregnant Demi Moore.

For you younger readers, Three’s Company, which aired from 1977-1984, focused on Jack Tripper (John Ritter), who pretends to be gay so he can share an apartment with sensible brunette, Janet Wood (Joyce DeWitt) and ditzy blonde, Chrissy Snow (Suzanne Somers, the current TV twirler and former Mistress of the Thighmaster). Rounding out the cast were the nosy neighbor landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Roper.

The Court began its discussion, stating: “[t]he parties agree that 3C copies the plot, premise, characters, sets and certain scenes from Three’s Company.” The parties also agreed that, as in the TV series, the male lead in 3C is an aspiring chef, the blonde is the daughter of a minister and the brunette is a florist. At least the characters’ names are different in plaintiff’s play, although the Court sometimes mistakenly refers to the names of Three’s Company characters in its discussion of 3C. So, there’s undoubtedly access and an awful lot of substantial similarity, the basic elements of a copyright infringement action.

In ruling on the Rule 12(c) motions (plaintiff’s for declaratory judgment and DLT’s on its counterclaim for infringement), the Court stated that discovery, which had been stayed, would not be necessary. Indeed, the decision reads like one for summary judgment as Judge Preska took pains to point out that her opinion is based not so much on the pleadings themselves but on the “raw materials” of the Three’s Company DVDs and the 3C script.

As with any parody case, the Court’s analysis started with the seminal 1994 Supreme Court case, Campbell v. Acuff Rose, which held that 2 Live Crew’s use of a portion of the Roy Orbison hit, Oh, Pretty Woman in the band’s similarly titled song, Pretty Woman, constituted a fair use parody of the work as it only used so much of the original work as was necessary to comment on it. Following Campbell, the Court here went through a fairly rote review of the four fair use 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.

And as in Campbell, the Court focused most on the first factor and whether or not Adjmi’s use of the sitcom’s material was “transformative,” citing Judge Leval’s influential 1990 Harvard Law Review Article. As the Supreme Court stated, a use is transformative when “it adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning or message.”

However, as I’ve written, the Seventh Circuit recently rejected the “transformative” analysis in fair use cases. In that case, Judge Easterbrook noted that any transformative use would constitute a derivative work, the authorization of which is the right of the copyright owner under Section 106(2) and that it’s best to stick with the four statutory factors.

So, how, exactly is 3C a transformative protected parody of Three’s Company? The main distinction is that in 3C, Brad, the male roommate, is really gay. He’s a gay man pretending to be a straight man who’s pretending to be gay. Got that? Moreover, the Court distinguishes 3C from Three’s Company by focusing on the play’s “heavy” tone, which features drug abuse and Mamet-like use of expletives, including gay-bashing slurs:

There is ample evidence to discern the tone of Three’s Company. It can be described as a happy, light-hearted, run-of-the-mill, sometimes almost slapstick situation comedy…. As demonstrated by select quotations…, 3C proceeds in a frenetic, disjointed and sometimes philosophical tone. It is often difficult to follow and unrelentingly vulgar. The same cannot be said of any episode of Three’s Company.

In other words, 3C is as dreary as Three’s Company is cheery. The Court concludes that “[t]he play is a highly transformative parody of the television series that, although it appropriates a substantial amount of Three’s Company, is a drastic departure from the original that poses little risk to the market for the original.” Fair enough. And having recently failed to sit through a single episode of Three’s Company, even one featuring Loni Anderson, it’s clear to me the show deserves to be parodied.

However, in reaching its conclusion, the Court seems to allow 3C to incorporate far more of Three’s Company than is needed to conjure up the original. In particular, the Court’s view of unprotectable elements like “stock characters” such as a ditzy blonde to include the character’s specific biography — as well as entire scenes lifted from several episodes of the series —  seems unnecessarily broad. The Court also closed with some seemingly “copy-leftist” dicta: “The law is agnostic between creators and infringers, favoring only creativity and the harvest of knowledge.” Say what? The Copyright Act imposes pretty stiff penalties against infringers.

Under this analysis, anything short of pure plagiaristic pilfering of prose would appear to be protected parody so long as the new work somehow “commented” on the prior one. This could have broad implications for other valuable series and their characters, from feature films to fan fiction. Think about applying this standard to the Star Wars franchise, although The Phantom Menace is its own parody.

Fat Chance for Skinny Puppy’s Guantanamo Claim

Yesterday, my astrologer friend, Elisabeth Grace, asked me to make a prediction of my own. She forwarded this article in The Guardian and inquired as to whether I thought the band Skinny Puppy has a case. As the article points out, the band’s music apparently was used as part of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” on “detainees” at the Guantanamo Bay facility operated by the US government on the grounds of the naval base there. The band is now demanding payment from the US Department of Defense in the amount of $666,000 for the unauthorized use of their music in this manner. Although I’m sympathetic to Skinny Puppy’s plight, I’m skeptical as to whether they have a cognizable claim.

Let’s assume that one of the guards got his hands on a Skinny Puppy CD and that he and his buddies thought it would be “persuasive” to blast the music at high volume on the prison grounds. Could Skinny Puppy have objected to this usage and can they now demand payment from the US government? Although Gitmo is on the island of Cuba, it is United States territory, so presumably, US law applies. The US Copyright Act grants copyright owners the exclusive right of public performance in Section 106.

However, this right does not apply to the public performance of a sound recording, such as a CD, LP or download when played over loudspeakers or broadcast by radio or TV. There is only a public performing right in a sound recording when it’s performed by means of a digital transmission, such as by streaming over the Internet. The US is one of less than a handful of countries (including North Korea and Iran) that does not have a broader public performing right in sound recordings.  So, neither the band nor its label can sue for the unauthorized blasting of the Skinny Puppy tracks over loudspeakers at Gitmo.

And that’s even assuming that such a broadcast constitutes a “public” performance under the US Copyright Act. Although there is no public performance right in a sound recording, there has long been such a right in the underlying musical compositions. It is this right that performing rights organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC have been licensing for decades. The songwriters and music publishers of the songs embodied in recordings that are played over loudspeakers at stadiums and nightclubs and other public venues are paid for this use by the PROs that license these facilities.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a public performance as  a performance that is “at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” I’ve not researched this issue, but performance at a federal detention center or any other prison probably isn’t a “public” performance. For example, ASCAP and BMI license local – but not federal – governments and prisons don’t seem to be covered by these licenses.

To further illustrate the distinction between a public performance, over which the songwriters of the Skinny Puppy works could have a claim and a private one where they would not, consider this example: If I were to blast a Skinny Puppy CD in my apartment, that’s a private performance and neither the band, the label, the songwriters, SoundExchange, nor ASCAP or BMI could come after me. However, my neighbors could call the cops for creating a nuisance – but that’s not a copyright claim or one that the band would have standing to bring.

And while there isn’t a blanket government use exemption, the feds would likely argue, somewhat ironically no doubt, that even assuming there is a “public” performance of the Skinny Puppy songs at the prison, the use by the government was “fair use” as it was in the course of lawful governmental activity (at least according to Justice Department memos) and not for commercial gain. If the government can claim “fair use”, it’s as if they had permission. For example, if a local fast food joint had ASCAP and BMI licenses and used certain music to deter teen loitering, the songwriters would have no say as to this particular use or the volume of the playing,  although the neighbors — but not the songwriters or the recording artist —  might object as a nuisance.

Any other claims the band might have may well be pre-empted under the Copyright Act. But as quoted in The Guardian article, the band’s keyboardist acknowledges that their point isn’t financial gain. It’s just one more more in a litany of public  moral outrages associated with Guantanamo. Unfortunately for Skinny Puppy, they can’t sue based on any such moral rights.

 

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.