Fair Use in the Courts in 2021

Posted April 20, 2021
“Prince Mural” by red.wolf is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This year is shaping up to be a big one for copyright: a new batch of works entered the public domain, the 2020 year-end stimulus bill made several changes to copyright law, the Copyright Office is currently undergoing its triennial rulemaking process to grant exemptions to section 1201’s prohibition on breaking digital locks, and courts are considering ever more difficult issues related to fair use. Two recent cases that have been making waves in the copyright community are Google LLC  v. Oracle America, Inc. and The Andy Warhol Foundation v. Goldsmith. Both cases discuss “transformativeness,” a key component of the fair use test, but reach different results: In the former, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of fair use, and in the latter, the Second Circuit Court ruled against fair use. 

At Authors Alliance, we care about fair use because it helps authors meet their goals of seeing their works shared broadly, facilitating the use of copyrighted works in some circumstances for certain specific purposes such as research, commentary, and teaching. Fair use also allows authors to use existing materials to strengthen their own research, commentary, and scholarship. We offer short summaries and takeaways from these cases here to keep you apprised of the goings on in copyright and offer some guidance on how these decisions might impact fair use cases more directly related to authors of literary works in the future. 

Google v. Oracle

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Google v. Oracle, a case that has been percolating in the lower courts for years, which concerned the question of whether Google’s unauthorized use of computer code to which Oracle held the copyright constituted fair use. In the case, Google was appealing a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which had held that Google’s use of APIs (also referred to as “declaring code”) was not fair use, despite a jury reaching the opposite conclusion. Google appealed to the Supreme Court on the question of whether APIs were protected by copyright at all and, if so, whether Google’s use of the code was fair.

In a decision by Justice Breyer, the Court skirted the question of whether APIs were copyrightable, but overturned the Federal Circuit’s finding of infringement, holding that Google’s use of the APIs was fair use. To come to this determination, the Court considered the four factors involved in fair use determinations. It found that declaring code was functional in nature: unlike the more creative “implementing code” involved in designing Android (and written by Google), the Court viewed the declaring code as equivalent to “building blocks.” 

The Court also found that Google’s use was transformative in purpose and character because it used Oracle’s declaring code, as well as its own computer code, to create a new platform offering “a new collection of tasks operating in a distinct and different computing environment.” The Court stated that this was sufficiently transformative to overcome the commercial nature of Google’s endeavor—the creation of the massively popular Android operating system. The Court further found that Google used a small quantity of Oracle’s code relative to the total code it used to create Android, overcoming arguments that the 11,500 lines of Oracle’s code that Google used was quite a substantial amount. Finally, the Court considered whether Google’s Android usurped a market Oracle could have otherwise profited from, and decided that Oracle was not well-positioned to develop a mobile platform at the time and that Google had not usurped its market. 

For authors who care about the widespread dissemination of their works and contributing to the commons of knowledge, Google’s fair use victory may seem a hopeful sign. But there is reason to believe that the holding will be of limited applicability in the future: It is not clear that it even applies to all software copyright issues. The decision—and importance of details such as the number of lines of code that were actually copied—shows how fact-sensitive fair use is. And the Court’s vision of transformativeness in the context of computer code is not an easy fit for other contexts, creating uncertainty as to whether and how the case will affect authors and creators in the future. 

The Andy Warhol Foundation v. Goldsmith

In late March, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in The Andy Warhol Foundation v. Goldsmith, a case concerning a series of screenprinted images created by artist Andy Warhol depicting the late musical artist (formerly known as) Prince, reproduced in court documents and referred to as the Prince series. The first image of Prince that Warhol created was commissioned by Vanity Fair, and was based on a photograph taken by plaintiff Lynn Goldsmith, a renowned celebrity photographer. All of this was authorized pursuant to agreements between Goldsmith and Vanity Fair and between Warhol and Vanity Fair. The Warhol image that appeared in Vanity Fair included credit lines for both Warhol— the artist—and Goldsmith—the photographer of the work upon which Warhol’s was based. But Warhol did not stop there— he created fourteen additional works in the same style, comprising the Prince series that was the subject of the litigation. 

In the case, Goldsmith sued the Warhol Foundation for infringement in the New York district court, alleging that the Prince series infringed on her copyright in the photograph of Prince. The district court found for the Warhol Foundation on fair use grounds, focusing on the transformative nature of Warhol’s silkscreen prints, which it believed “transformed Prince from a vulnerable, uncomfortable person,” as he was presented in Goldsmith’s photograph, “to an iconic, larger-than-life figure[.]” Warhol’s works also changed the image of Prince from a black and white, three-dimensional representation to two dimensional, colorful representations. Goldsmith appealed the ruling to the Second Circuit, which overturned the district court’s finding of fair use.

The Second Circuit disagreed with the district court that Warhol’s images were transformative. In its view, the district court improperly took on “the role of art critic,” making an artistic determination that Warhol’s works were transformative, rather than comparing the elements of the images and their purposes and characters. Under this approach, the Second Circuit concluded that the work retained “essential elements” of Goldsmith’s photograph, and was functionally the same work with a new aesthetic. 

Unlike the Google case, the narrow reading of transformativeness in Warhol v. Goldsmith can more readily be applied in other contexts where other creative works could be broken down into their elements and compared. The Warhol court was not the only one in recent months to constrain the so-called “transformative use test,” and courts are increasingly moving away from considering transformativeness subjectively, and towards examining elements of the two works more objectively. Yet the Google decision took a broader approach to fair use, and one which, as a Supreme Court case, will be more influential to courts across the country. The variations in treatment of fair use in general, and transformativeness specifically, show how fair use is a context-specific determination. Creators who would like to learn more about how fair use applies to the common situations they face can turn to our fair use guide for nonfiction authors and the best practices guides specific to other communities of creators.