When is news reporting fair use under copyright law?

Blogger claims fair use supports his challenge to DMCA takedown of YouTube video. But “news reporting” aspect of fair use can be tricky.

An embattled California pastor sent a DMCA takedown notice to YouTube over a video clip that a blogger used “to report accurately the relationship” between two organizations. The blogger sent a counternotification and explained that he believes copyright fair use protects him against the takedown (and apparently against infringement as well).

The blogger invokes, among other things, the news reporting aspect of fair use, which one finds set forth in Section 107 of the Copyright Act. A recent fair use case, Swatch Group Management Services Ltd. v. Bloomberg, 742 F. 3d 17 (2d Cir. 2014) might shed some interesting light on how news reporting plays into the analysis. In that case, the court found that defendant was protected by fair use when it distributed an audio recording of a company’s earnings call. Unlike many fair use cases, in which the analysis under the first factor (purpose and character of the use) becomes a question of whether the subsequent use is “transformative,” the court observes the following:

In the context of news reporting and analogous activities … the need to convey information to the public accurately may in some instances make it desirable and consonant with copyright law for a defendant to faithfully reproduce an original work rather than transform it.

A defendant may in some circumstances provide transformative material along with the faithful reproduction of an original work. But the absence of that transformative material will not disqualify a defendant from showing fair use:

[B]y disseminating not just a written transcript or article but an actual sound recording, [defendant] was able to convey with precision not only what [plaintiff’s] executives said, but also how they said it. This latter type of information may be just as valuable … as the former, since a speaker’s demeanor, tone, and cadence can often elucidate his or her true beliefs far beyond what a stale transcript or summary can show.

So we see that the news reporting aspect of fair use can be conceptually separated from transformative use.

There is a slippery slope risk here, and the court recognized that. It cited to the Supreme Court’s Harper & Row decision to observe that “[t]he promise of copyright would be an empty one if it could be avoided merely by dubbing the infringement a fair use ‘news report'”. In this case, however, the “independent informational value inherent in a faithful recording” carried the day. From this we see a rule or guide: use of a piece of content is more likely to be newsworthy if the piece of content itself, and not just the raw information within the content, is a news event.

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with technology, the internet and new media.

Fair use is a trademark concept as well

Ninth Circuit finds trademark fair use of name of online music site.

Webceleb is a “social marketplace for independent music.” It sued several defendants over the use of the term “web celeb” in connection with a television show award category and a section of an entertainment website. Defendants moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted the motion. Plaintiff sought review with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the award of summary judgment.

The court held that defendants’ use of the term “web celeb” was a classic fair use because:

  • the use of the mark was not a trademark use;
  • the use was fair and in good faith; and
  • the use was only descriptive

There was no trademark use because the term “web celeb” (at least according to the court) is “common parlance” for internet celebrities, which was what the award category was intended to recognize. And the use of “web celeb” in connection with the electronic magazine was merely descriptive of the online magazine’s content. The use was in good faith, as the evidence showed defendants were unaware of plaintiff’s mark when they created the “straightforward, descriptive title.”

The court came close to blaming the plaintiff for its own trademark woes:

Any minimal confusion here is the “risk the plaintiff accepted when it decided to identify its product with a mark that uses a well known descriptive phrase.” (Citing KP Permanent Make–Up, Inc. v. Lasting Impression I, Inc., 543 U.S. 111, 121–22 (2004))

That should serve as an instruction to all trademark adopters: While descriptive marks may do a good job of conveying information about a product, for the same reason the trademark owner may not enjoy as much protected exclusivity in the mark.

Webceleb, Inc. v. Procter & Gamble Co., 2014 WL 448648 (9th Cir. February 5, 2014)

Copyright and the JFK Assassination

Fifty years ago today, which was of course long before smartphones with cameras, Abraham Zapruder filmed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy using his 8 millimeter color home movie camera. Not only did the Zapruder film become iconic, its subsequent treatment formed the basis for a later copyright case that presented some interesting issues.

A few days after the assassination, in exchange for $150,000, Zapruder assigned the copyright in the film to Life Magazine (actually its parent company Time Inc.). In 1967, Josiah Thompson wrote a book about the assassination that contained charcoal sketches copied from frames of the Zapruder film.

Time sued for copyright infringement. Defendants moved for summary judgment. The court granted the motion.

Among other things, defendants argued that the frames from the Zapruder film were not entitled to copyright protection in the first place because they lacked originality. The court rejected this argument, noting that:

The Zapruder pictures in fact have many elements of creativity. Among other things, Zapruder selected the kind of camera (movies, not snapshots), the kind of film (color), the kind of lens (telephoto), the area in which the pictures were to be taken, the time they were to be taken, and (after testing several sites) the spot on which the camera would be operated.

The case also had a fair use component. As is still the reality 50 years later, the court observed that “the [fair use] doctrine is entirely equitable and is so flexible as virtually to defy definition.” It cited an earlier decision that called the issue “the most troublesome in the whole law of copyright.”

The fair use analysis is particularly interesting in that it took place, obviously, before the 1976 Copyright Act, which codified the now well-known fair use factors. But it looked to the same language that is now in Section 107 of the Act, which then was merely a passed Hose Bill (H.R. 2512) but still under consideration by the Senate. It wasn’t until more than 10 years later that the factors actually became codified.

The court held that the fair use factors went in defendants’ favor. It noted the substantial public interest in having the fullest information available. And it concluded that people bought the book not for the Zapruder pictures, but because of the theory and explanation set forth in it, supported by the Zapruder pictures. Moreover, there was little, if any, injury to the copyright owner. There was no competition between plaintiff and defendants. And here is a theme that persists to this day, even as recently as the Google Book Search decision: “It seems more reasonable to speculate that the Book would, if anything, enhance the value of the copyrighted work; it is difficult to see any decrease in its value.”

Time Inc. v. Bernard Geis Associates, 293 F.Supp. 130 (D.C.N.Y 1968)

What the Google Book Search fair use decision means for innovators

(This is a slightly modified cross-post from my firm’s blog.)

Yesterday the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted Google’s motion for summary judgment in the 8-year-running Google Book Search case. The court held that Google’s copying and display of in-copyright books is a noninfringing fair use. The decision is a signal that modern copyright law, despite its many flaws that become apparent in the digital age, will make at least some room for technological innovation.

About the Case

In 2004, Google announced plans to scan the full text of millions of books, both in the public domain and in-copyright, and to make those scanned works searchable on the web. For in-copyright works, Google would make “snippets,” each comprised of 1/8 of a page, available as search results for keywords contained within them.

Plaintiffs (some individual authors and the Authors Guild) sued Google in 2005 for copyright infringement. The parties reached a settlement agreement in 2008, but the court later rejected that agreement. Earlier this year, plaintiffs suffered a setback when the Second Circuit held that a class action was not appropriate because of the fact-specific fair use questions.

Back at the trial court level, the parties cross-moved for summary judgment. Google argued, as it had from the outset, that the scanning and display is a noninfringing fair use. The court granted Google’s summary judgment motion.

The Court’s Decision

Fair use is an affirmative defense to copyright infringement. Section 107 of the Copyright Act guides a court on how to determine whether a defendant’s use is fair. That provision instructs that it is not copyright infringement if one uses another’s work “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.” It goes on to provide that a court should apply four non-exhaustive factors in the fair use analysis:

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In this case, the court began its fair use analysis by emphasizing how “[c]opyright law seeks to [provide] sufficient protection to authors and inventors to stimulate creative activity, while at the same time permitting others to utilize protected works to advance the progress of the arts and sciences.”

In applying the fair use factors, the court focused extensively on the first factor (purpose and character of the use). In this analysis, the court looked to the key question of whether the use was “transformative.” Borrowing from the Supreme Court, the court looked to whether Google’s scanning and display of the works “superseded” or “supplanted” the original creation, or whether the conduct:

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.”

The court found the use to be transformative, comparing the “snippets” to thumbnail images, which were found to be protected by fair use in a 2003 case (Kelly v. Arriba Soft) involving an image search engine. Moreover, the court’s opinion noted the extensive benefits occasioned by Google’s efforts, including:

  • The creation of new and efficient ways for readers and researchers to find books.
  • The increased ability to conduct “data mining” or “text mining” research. For example, using the tool, researchers can examine word frequencies, syntactic patterns, and thematic markers to consider how literary style has changed over time.
  • The expansion of access to books. In particular, the court noted how traditionally underserved populations will benefit as they gain knowledge of and access to far more books. Digitization facilitates the conversion of books to audio and tactile formats, increasing access for individuals with disabilities.
  • The preservation and “new life” of old and out of print books.

The court acknowledged the idea that Google was engaged in commercial activity through the scanning project. But such fact was not dispositive to the fair use finding. Given the nature of the benefits, the court was satisfied that the purpose and character of the use supported a fair use finding.

On the second fair use factor, the court found that because the works were already published and were non-fiction, the balance tilted in favor of fair use.

The third factor came out “slightly” in Google’s favor. While a copying of all of a work will generally weigh against the defendant in considering the “amount and substantiality of the portion used,” the fact that the search feature would not function properly had the entire work not been scanned, put this factor on Google’s side.

Finally, on the fourth fair use factor — effect on the market — the court rejected plaintiff’s arguments that the scanning and display will negatively affect the sale of plaintiff’s works. Google does not sell the scanned copies, nor would it be feasible or practicable for a user to obtain an entire copy of the work through an assemblage of snippets. In fact, the court noted how the platform will help readers and researchers identify books, thus benefiting authors and publishers. From this, the court found, Google Books will generate new audiences and create new sources of income.

What This Says About Innovation and the Law

Google’s use of technology in this situation was disruptive. It challenged the expectation of copyright holders, who used copyright law to challenge that disruption. It bears noting that in the court’s analysis, it assumed that copyright infringement had taken place. But since fair use is an affirmative defense, it considered whether Google had carried its burden of showing that the circumstances warranted a finding that the use was fair. In this sense, fair use serves as a backstop against copyright ownership extremism. Under these particular circumstances — where Google demonstrated incredible innovation — that backstop provided room for the innovation to take root and grow. Technological innovators should be encouraged.

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