Category Archives: Law and Policy News

Authors Alliance Submits Comments in Support of Modernization Efforts at the U.S. Copyright Office

Posted July 17, 2017

Today, Authors Alliance submitted comments in response to the United States Copyright Office’s recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Modernizing Copyright Recordation. By reducing the barriers to recording transfers of copyright ownership and submitting notices of termination, the proposed rules lay the foundation for improved copyright ownership records and make it easier for authors to exercise their termination rights.

We fully support these goals, which would not only help authors help authors increase the compensation for and dissemination of their own works, but also make it easier for others to find accurate information about the rights in a given work and therefore reduce the number of works likely to become “orphans.” We also suggested that the Office consider:

  • providing better incentives for rights holders to record transfers of copyright ownership;
  • providing incentives to record transfers by operation of law;
  • strengthening incentives to keep ownership contact information accurate and up to date;
  • providing a mechanism to record diligent search data for orphan works;
  • reducing fees for electronic submission of documents; and
  • hiring technologists and economists to support modernization efforts.

Further details can be found in the full text of our comment. Hover over the document below to view the comment in your browser, or download here.

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Terminating Transfers: An Inalienable Right Under Threat

Posted July 6, 2017

Mike Wolfe headshotThe following is a guest post by Mike Wolfe, Scholarly Communications Officer at UC Davis, and the former Executive Director of Authors Alliance.

Sometimes, being an author means making bad deals. Authors are routinely asked to sign away their rights for the life of copyright—which lasts 70 years after death in the U.S.—and the promise of publication, or an advance, or just being done leads them to say, “yes.”

Authors always have options when they come to regret these decisions, but in the U.S. they often hold a trump card: Termination of transfers. These legal provisions, when exercised properly, let authors walk away from their copyright transfers. The linchpin that makes the whole thing work, and the feature that makes these rights so powerful, is that termination rights can’t be signed away. They work “notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary.” At least, that’s what the law says in the United States.

But termination rights are such a powerful tool for authors that they are constantly under threat. Recently a very public series of high-profile (and star-studded) lawsuits has helped to bring this into focus. First, a troubling court decision in the United Kingdom late last year created the potential to undermine the U.S. termination rights of authors worldwide, and more recently a lawsuit initiated by Sir Paul McCartney in the U.S. stepped in with the goal of protecting them.

Duran Duran, the British pop group behind “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Rio,” wrote their top hits while under contract to assign the copyrights—a contract signed as teenagers at the very beginning of their careers. Decades later, on the hunt after valuable royalties, the band exercised their U.S. termination rights in order to regain copyright and benefit from the success they realized “across the Rio Grande” from Mexico. It’s hard to imagine that, at the time, they had any inkling of being sued in the United Kingdom for breach of contract.

But the contract Duran Duran signed was with a British company, and was subject to British law. With Duran Duran’s terminations processing in the United States, the rightsholder brought Duran Duran into court in the U.K. for violating this agreement. In a highly questionable decision, the British court hearing the matter found that Duran Duran’s proper exercise of their rights under U.S. law was nevertheless a breach of their contractual commitments. (The band was granted leave to appeal the decision in February.)

While this one decision isn’t the last word on whether British law will ultimately respect U.S. termination rights, it does set a dangerous precedent. As high-profile terminations become more common, others will try to challenge them in local courts not just in the U.K., but all around the world. And the U.K. is a particularly important leader, given its large international role in many cultural fields, and particularly in international publishing. Authors from around the world, including authors in the U.S., publish with presses based in the U.K., signing agreements subject to U.K. law.

Enter Sir Paul McCartney, who has his own set of British music publishing contracts that might have been turned against his terminations of transfers. (McCartney would have been eligible to exercise his termination rights in October 2018.) Far from letting it be, I’ve got a feeling that McCartney drove his car down to the courthouse eight days a week, dead set on fixing that hole. His recent lawsuit against Sony/ATV, filed in the United States, sought a confirmation that he may exercise his termination rights without breaching his contracts. Late last week, however, the case settled under undisclosed terms, leaving the status of Sir Paul’s termination claims unclear.

The ramifications here are important. Notably, Duran Duran did not have expert evidence of how the U.S. termination rights override contracts to the contrary. If McCartney had gone to trial and won, he would have had more than just expert evidence; he would have had a judicial opinion in his favor. These cases might not be the last word on the subject, but pursuing  termination of transfers is one way put a halt to the disturbing trend of chipping away at authors’ rights. U.S. copyright law gives all authors, regardless of nationality, a very powerful right and authors everywhere have a stake in seeing it preserved.


Authors Alliance and Creative Commons are finalizing rightsback.org, an online tool designed to assist authors in identifying their eligibility for termination of transfer rights. The tool is currently in beta, and we expect to officially launch rightsback.org this fall. We will keep our readers updated on progress. In the meantime, we encourage authors to test the tool—it’s a powerful way to learn more about termination rights.

A Worrisome Harbinger of Changes in Copyright Law

Posted May 3, 2017

Pamela Samuelson, President, Authors Alliance

Note: This article was originally made available to subscribers of the Chronicle of Higher Education on April 23, 2017. The full text is reprinted below with permission.

With all the hoopla and dysfunction in the White House and Congress, you might think that the copyright bills pending before Congress do not need your attention. Think again. Momentum is building for three of these measures, and the impact of these bills on institutions of higher education will not be welcome.

The most likely to pass (and relatively soon) is H.R. 1695, The Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act. It has bipartisan support from 32 House members, and the endorsement of 3 key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill calls for the Register of the U.S. Copyright Office (its CEO) to be a Presidential appointee for a 10-year term, subject to Senate confirmation. This bill has already been reported out of the House Judiciary Committee.

The Librarian of Congress has historically been the official who selected the Register of Copyrights. This made sense because the Copyright Office is a subdivision of the Library, and the Office supplies the Library with copies of registered works to add to its collection. The Register’s main job has been to ensure that the copyright registration system works well, so the general practice has been to promote someone with long experience in the Office to become Register. Because Librarian Carla Hayden has commenced a search to replace Maria Pallante, the Register who resigned (to avoid being demoted), Congress will have to move quickly on H.R. 1695, or Hayden may fill the position on her own—which would be good for universities.

H.R. 1695 finds support among industry insiders who are nervous that Hayden, who has made a career as a public librarian, would appoint as Pallante’s successor someone whose positions on copyright issues might be more closely aligned with the interests of libraries and the public than with interests of those who commercially exploit copyrights and who have long had considerable influence on the Office’s policy prescriptions.

The ostensible reason to elevate the Register as a Presidential appointee is the much greater significance of copyright in the U.S. and global economies today. As a Presidential appointee, the Register would be able to speak with greater authority in advising the President on key copyright policy matters, just as the Presidentially appointed Commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office already does.

So why should universities worry about H.R. 1695?

If President Trump appoints the Register, this will further politicize copyright law. Until now, professional competence and deep knowledge of copyright and of the Office’s duties were the primary qualifications for the Register’s job. Since copyright industry groups will almost certainly have more influence with the President and members of Congress than universities do, H.R. 1695, if enacted, seems likely to favor copyright industry interests over university interests.

A second bill worth watching is H.R. 890, the Copyright Office for the Digital Economy Act. Like H.R. 1695, it calls for the Register to be a presidential appointee. It would, however, go farther by removing Copyright Office from the Library of Congress’ aegis and making it into an independent Congressional agency.

Even during Pallante’s tenure, tension existed between the Library and the Office over the level of financial support that the Library provided to enable the Office to upgrade its technology infrastructure. As an independent agency, the Office would be free from the Library’s control.

Under this law, the Office also would be free to make recommendations to Congress without any oversight, consultation, or review by other federal agencies. Universities may consequently lose opportunities they now have to appeal to executive agencies to influence the Office on policy matters.

Further down the road, but nevertheless building up steam, is a legislative proposal to create a small claims tribunal within the Copyright Office to adjudicate infringement claims valued at $30,000 or less. H.R. 5757, the Copyright Alternative in Small Claims Enforcement (CASE) Act of 2016 has not been re-introduced in the 115th Congress. But Rep. Robert Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, announced earlier this year that the small claims proposal was a key part of the copyright reform agenda he expects to pursue in this session of Congress.

One of the two key drivers of this bill is the desire of entertainment-industry companies to have a low-cost way to litigate claims against peer-to-peer file-sharers and other Internet users who “pirate” their works (including students at colleges and universities). The other main driver has been groups of photographers and graphic artists whose works are routinely infringed, often in online environments. The high cost of federal court litigation makes it infeasible for them to vindicate their rights.

If this legislation was carefully designed to give these copyright owners a low-cost way to get reasonable compensation for wrongs done to them, that would be one thing. But the bill has some problematic features, including the creation of two new sets of statutory damages.

One would benefit copyright owners who register copyright claims pre-infringement (as entertainment industry firms typically do). For these owners, a small claim could yield a tribunal award up to $15,000 per infringed work and up to $30,000 total. This is worrisomely high given that the challenged use need not have caused any harm to the copyright owner.

A second would be available to unregistered copyright owners. A small claim could yield up to $7500 per infringed work and up to $15,000 total per case, even if an infringement caused little or no actual harm.

The CASE Act also raises due process concerns. Although someone notified of a small claim can opt-out of the proceeding within 30 days, unrepresented recipients of claim letters may ignore them. Non-response will result in a default judgment, which the copyright owner can take to a federal court to get an order requiring payment.

Should universities be concerned about this? The short answer is yes. Cambridge University Press (CUP) may have had little success so far in the Georgia State electronic course reserve case, but suppose it learns that a professor has uploaded to a course website a chapter from a book published by CUP. CUP is unlikely to bring a federal lawsuit against the professor (or her university). But a small claim against her (or her institution) would be cost-effective and much faster. The Copyright Office tribunal might well be receptive to CUP’s claim. If one claim succeeds, CUP would have reason to bring others.

This is only one example of the many ways in which universities, faculty, and students might find themselves subject to new rounds of copyright claims. Copyright Office tribunals may not be as receptive to educational fair use defenses as federal courts.

These bills are a worrisome harbinger of what lies ahead for institutions of higher education on copyright policy issues. As with so many other issues currently facing this country, awareness and vigilance must be watchwords of the day.

 

 

 

Authors’ Rights Beyond Attribution and Integrity:
The Rights to Revive and Revise

Posted April 6, 2017

 

“Author from BL Harley 4425, f. 133” by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun is licensed under PDM 1.0

“Author from BL Harley 4425, f. 133” by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun is licensed under PDM 1.0

The following article, by Authors Alliance co-founder Molly Shaffer Van Houweling, continues our series of posts on the topic of moral rights. Molly is Professor of Law and Associate Dean at UC Berkeley, and a faculty co-director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. She also serves as Board Chair of Creative Commons.

The Copyright Office is considering whether U.S. Copyright law ought to recognize authorial attribution and integrity rights. Authors Alliance submitted comments in support of these rights—if they are carefully crafted and limited—but also proposes two other authorial rights: one to revive one’s work and the other to revise one’s work if the copyright is owned by another.

Here’s why:

Consider the plight of an author who has assigned her copyright to a publisher who is no longer printing the book or making it available online. Perhaps the publisher has lost interest because sales are low; but the author still maintains a strong interest in having her work available to readers. Authors Alliance member Paul Heald’s research suggests just how prevalent this problem is.

The only tool that U.S. copyright law currently provides to authors of works that are effectively locked up in a publishers’ vault is a right to terminate a copyright transfer 35 years later. In theory, authors could use the termination of transfer provision to revive works that have fallen out of print. In practice, the daunting intricacies of the scheme make it difficult for many authors to take advantage of their rights. These challenges are not insurmountable. Authors Alliance and Creative Commons are making efforts to help authors exercise their rights. But even if it works as smoothly as possible, the termination of transfer provision is an awkward solution for authors who want to revive their works. Most glaringly, termination does not take effect for decades after a work was created. In most cases this will be long after a book has gone out of print.

Now consider an author who has changed her mind, on the basis of new research, about an argument she made in a book to which a publisher owns the copyright. She wants to disseminate a revised edition but the publisher denies her permission to create a derivative work based upon the original. An author who is not the owner of copyright in her own work cannot insist, under U.S. law, on her right to revise that work beyond what is permitted by fair use. And, again, the termination right might not be a timely or practical solution.

The prospect of these dilemmas is one motivation for authors who are increasingly retaining and managing their own copyrights. Unfortunately, that movement comes too late for authors who have already assigned their copyrights to publishers. For some such authors, it may be possible to exercise a contractual right of reversion or renegotiate as described in the Authors Alliance Guide to Understanding Rights Reversion. But not every contract includes a reversion clause and not every publisher is willing to renegotiate—even assuming that the publisher is still the copyright owner and can be easily identified and located that purpose (not a safe assumption in light of the well-documented problem of orphan works).

Perhaps what these authors need—in addition to rights of attribution and integrity—are statutory rights to revive and revise their works. Although such rights are not separately identified as part of the authors’ rights tradition, there are some features of copyright laws of other nations that at least nod toward their importance. In a recent article in the Houston Law Review, I explain how the U.S. could borrow from and improve upon these approaches to prevent the dilemmas faced by authors for whom copyright stands as an obstacle to reaching readers with both their existing works and their new ideas.

For more in our series on moral rights, read on!

Pam Samuelson on “A Case for Recognizing Attribution and Integrity as Moral Rights”

Authors Alliance on “The Need for a Nuanced Approach to Attribution and Integrity Rights”

Our comments in response to the Copyright Office study on moral rights

Authors Alliance Submits Comments on Moral Rights to the U.S. Copyright Office

Posted March 30, 2017
“Author from BL Harley 4425, f. 133” by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun is licensed under PDM 1.0

“Author from BL Harley 4425, f. 133” by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun is licensed under PDM 1.0

Today, Authors Alliance submitted comments in response to the U.S. Copyright Office’s study of moral rights. We support creators’ rights to integrity and attribution (subject to some limitations and exceptions that protect downstream creative reuse), and we believe that these non-economic authorial rights should be formally recognized in U.S. copyright law—as they are in many other countries. We also encourage the Copyright Office to consider recognizing other non-economic author rights, namely, the right to revive one’s work if it is no longer available commercially and the right to revise one’s work over time.

Hover over the document below to view in your browser, or download here. We will continue our series of posts on moral rights in the coming weeks and will keep our readers up to date on developments at the Copyright Office.

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A Nuanced Approach to Attribution and Integrity Rights

Posted March 28, 2017
“Author from BL Harley 4425, f. 133” by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun is licensed under PDM 1.0

“Author from BL Harley 4425, f. 133” by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun is licensed under PDM 1.0

Since our launch, Authors Alliance has endorsed the idea that Congress should extend statutory protections for attribution (the right of an author to be credited as the author of his or her work) and integrity (the right of an author to prevent prejudicial distortions of the work) as part of its copyright reform initiatives. In our Principles and Proposals for Copyright Reform, we wrote that the “law should recognize the right of authors to be acknowledged as creators of our works.”

Last week, Authors Alliance President Pamela Samuelson identified eight reasons why it is in the interest of authors as well as the public for authorial attribution and integrity to be statutorily recognized in U.S. copyright law. In this second post in our series on moral rights, we set out some additional contours for the scope of these rights.

Limitations and Exceptions

To prevent attribution and integrity rights from stifling onward creativity and speech, these rights should be carefully cabined through limitations and exceptions. Three of these limitations and exceptions are fair use, first sale, and “reasonableness.”

First Sale, Fair Use, and Digital Downloads:
Capitol Records v. ReDigi

Posted February 22, 2017

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In honor of Fair Use Week, we are delighted to feature this guest blog post from NYU Technology Law & Policy Clinic students Cassie Deskus and Kristen Iglesias discussing the role of fair use in the ReDigi case.

The Second Circuit will soon hear arguments in Capitol Records v. ReDigi, a case that will determine if and when consumers will be able to resell lawfully owned digital media. ReDigi provided an online marketplace for reselling music purchased from iTunes. ReDigi’s software allowed users to transfer music from their computer to ReDigi’s cloud servers, where it was offered for sale. Upon a subsequent sale, the software transferred the file to the buyer’s computer. The transfer process attempted to avoid copyright issues by employing strong verification safeguards and ensuring that there was only ever one full copy of the song in existence at any given time.

If ReDigi had been in the business of reselling physical CDs or books, resale would have been an uncontroversial application of first sale—a doctrine which permits the owner of any lawfully owned copy to dispose of that copy without restriction. The District Court, however, held that each song transfer was an unlawful reproduction, effectively preventing the owner of a digital work from reselling it. Unless the opinion is reversed, the only way consumers will ever be able to resell their digital music or books is to sell their entire digital device. In other words, to resell a $0.99 eBook you finished reading years ago, you’d have to sell your entire tablet and all of its contents!

This should be concerning to all creators of digital works. Without lawful resale, the “secondary markets” we enjoy in the physical sphere–libraries, used bookstores, garage sales, and even donations–cease to exist in the digital sphere. Not only will authors be unable to reach the same listeners and readers via digital publication that they might through analog publication, but those same listeners and readers won’t be able to easily share the digital works that they love.

That’s why the NYU Technology Law & Policy Clinic filed an amicus brief on behalf of over 20 copyright scholars, including several Authors Alliance members, arguing that any alleged unlawful reproductions are covered by either first sale or fair use.

As many Authors Alliance members know, the first factor of fair use is “the purpose and character of the use.” We argued that exercising a copy owner’s first sale rights, which have been recognized by courts and Congress for over one hundred years, is about as fair a purpose as can be. The public benefits resulting from digital secondary markets also favor this interpretation. The fact that ReDigi was a commercial enterprise does not change this outcome—indeed, many commercial uses of digital copyrighted works have been held to be fair use. ReDigi’s platform parallels secondary markets that have always existed in the physical realm; such markets are a testament to copyright law’s tolerance for, and accommodation of, robust resale rights. We hope that the Second Circuit reverses the lower court and preserves digital first sale, especially given the strong fair use arguments favoring ReDigi. If you’d like to read the rest of our argument, the entire brief is available here.

Authors Alliance Amicus Brief Supports Fair Use Defense in Georgia State Case

Posted February 13, 2017

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Since our founding, Authors Alliance has supported a robust interpretation of fair use that helps authors keep their works discoverable and in the hands of readers. We’ve published a number of opinion and policy articles on the subject, and our members and allies may recall that we filed an amicus brief in support of Google in the Authors Guild v. Google Books litigation, in which we argued that Google’s snippet views of scanned books from libraries made books more discoverable and served a public good by enhancing access to millions of works. We welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case, thereby ending the decade-long litigation and allowing the district court’s ruling in favor of fair use to stand.

Now, Authors Alliance has weighed in again on the fair use question, this time in the matter of Cambridge University Press v. Albert. The case turns on whether faculty at Georgia State University (GSU) infringed Cambridge University Press’ and other publishers’ copyrights by assigning chapters from scholarly books to their students via secure course websites. GSU argues that this limited use for nonprofit educational purposes falls within fair use, and we have filed an amicus brief with the 11th Circuit in support of that argument. In the brief, we highlight that academic authors’ primary motivation to write and publish scholarly works is grounded in their desire to share and advance knowledge. Many of our members are academic authors, and one of our members is the author of a chapter at issue in the case. They—and we—believe that this limited use of copyrighted content in a nonprofit educational setting meets the test for fair use. In the brief, we present three main arguments in support of this interpretation:

  • Incentives to write and publish scholarly book chapters will not be impaired by a ruling that nonprofit educational uses of these chapters is fair use.
  • The use of fact-, method-, and theory-intensive scholarly book chapters assigned primarily because of the originality of ideas, theses, research, data, and methods they contain, rather than on originality of expression, should tip in favor of fair use.
  • New options in digital publishing and trends toward open access in scholarly communications favor the fair use ruling.

The full text of the brief may be read here. We will continue to follow the case and provide updates on new developments in the litigation.

Authors Alliance Submits Comments Regarding the U.S. Copyright Office to the House Judiciary Committee

Posted January 31, 2017

Today, Authors Alliance submitted comments to the House Judiciary Committee in response to an initial proposal by Representatives Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and John Conyers (D-MI) to reform the U.S. Copyright Office. The Committee invited comment on four proposed reforms intended to reorganize the office, bolster expertise, modernize technology infrastructure, and allow for pursuit of small claim infringements.

We applaud the Judiciary Committee for soliciting stakeholder input on these important issues, and we will continue to monitor developments at the Copyright Office and keep our members up to date as the Office seeks a new Register of Copyrights and works to implement reforms. The full text of our comments may be read below:

Copyright Week 2017: Foster Transparency and Representation in Copyright and Provide Input on the Next Register of Copyrights

Posted January 18, 2017

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It’s copyright week! This week, Authors Alliance is joining a group of organizations in reflecting on some of the principles that help make copyright law an engine of creativity.

Copyright law has many stakeholders, including creators of all kinds and the consumers of their works. Traditionally, however, only a narrow band of copyright’s constituents have had real representation in setting copyright policy, which has typically put the interests of certain classes of commercial creators and industries first. From the start, Authors Alliance has worked to bring the voices of creators who wish to share their work broadly to these important debates.

Today, the United States is at a critical inflection point in how it makes copyright policy and whose interests are considered in the process, with a new Librarian of Congress currently working to appoint a new Register of Copyrights (the highest ranking official at the United States Copyright Office and the U.S. government’s leading copyright expert).

In fact, the resignation of Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante last fall brought about renewed scrutiny of the entire U.S. Copyright Office, as well as calls for reform—notably from Rep. Goodlatte and the House Judiciary Committee in December.  Key points under consideration are the Office’s relationship to the Library of Congress, its organizational structure, and the pressing need for modernization and technological upgrades.

The Library of Congress is currently seeking input from the public on the qualifications and priorities for a new Register of Copyrights. The Copyright Office is tasked with serving a diverse constituency whose values and goals are often at odds with one another. The leadership transitions at LOC and the Copyright Office have created a significant opportunity to see a copyright office that is both more effective at its core functions (most especially, registering copyrights and copyright transfers), and more cognizant of the diversity of interests in our copyright system. The debates are real, and the consequences far-reaching. Now is the time for those of us who support openness, a broad view of fair use, and protections for individual creators, to advocate for our values.

Authors Alliance is closely following these developments at the Copyright Office in the coming year, and is committed to continuing seeing our members’ interests represented in these kinds of venues. We encourage all of our members and allies to take the LOC’s survey by the January 31 deadline to ensure that we—as authors and creators whose work is both helped and hindered by copyright policy—have a voice in the ongoing debates on copyright reform.