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.

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