Can fair use and the First Amendment protect U.S. authors from foreign copyright judgments?

Posted August 1, 2022
Photo by Ibrahim Boran from Unsplash.

On July 13, the Ninth Circuit handed down an interesting opinion in Sicre de Fontbrune v. Wofsy, a case addressing whether U.S. courts should enforce foreign copyright judgements when a fair use defense (which is available in the United States but not in many other jurisdictions) would have applied in the United States.  

Fair use is incredibly important for authors—it supports all kinds of creative work, allowing authors to copy the work of others for quotation, comment , or criticism; to create a parody; or even to create research tools that make it easier to learn and discover or gain new insights. For U.S. authors who publish online and aim for an international audience, applying fair use can be a challenge because the doctrine only applies in the United States. Most other countries have no direct analog to fair use, which raises uncertainty: will authors be liable for copyright infringement in other jurisdictions when they exercise fair use online, and if so, how might a negative outcome in another jurisdiction affect their ability to write in the United States? Sicre de Fontbrune begins to address some of these questions.  


This facts of this case goes back several decades, to the early 1990s when Alan Wofsy—a San Francisco based art publisher and antiquarian book dealer—obtained permission from the Picasso estate to publish what has now become a standard Picasso reference work, The Picasso Project. The Picasso Project documents Picasso’s greatest works with substantial reference information. Wofsy reused a number of images of Picasso paintings from an earlier, larger work known as the Zervos Catalogue, in which Sicre De Fontbrune asserts copyright. The Zervos Catalogue is a 33-volume work with over 16,000 images of Picasso’s art, produced with cooperation from Picasso and his estate from 1932-1979. The Zervos Catalogue is now out of print and selling on the used market for upwards of $20,000 for all 33 volumes. The Picasso Project is 28 volumes, each of which can be purchased individually for $150 directly from Wofsy (or, $4200 for the whole set).

Sicre de Fontbrune originally sued in the French courts in the mid 1990s when Wofsy offered a small number of copies of The Picasso Project for sale in France. According to the Ninth Circuit Court’s retelling of the French case, The Picasso Project reused some 1,400 images from the Zervos Catalogue. The court explained, Sicre de Fontbrune’s claim was not that Wofsy infringed Picasso’s copyrights (remember, he had permission from the Picasso estate), but that Wofsy had infringed Sicre de Fontbrune’s rights in the photographs that it had procured of Picasso’s art and published in the Zervos Catalogue

France—a jurisdiction with no equivalent to the U.S. doctrine of fair use—concluded that Wofsy’s use infringed Sicre de Fontrbrune’s copyright and so handed down a judgment against Wofsy in 2001. A decade later, Sicre de Fontbrune discovered some copies of The Picasso Project in a French bookstore, and so Sicre de Fontbrune sued again to enforce its judgment in France and won. Because the judgment was from a French court, and Wofsy (and his assets) were in the United States, Sicre de Fontbrune then took its judgment to California, where Wofsy is located, in order to actually collect on its French legal victory. Sicre de Fontbrune then asked California courts to enforce the judgment against Wofsy so Sicre de Fontbrune could recover money damages.

Wofsy raised a number of defenses in the U.S. proceeding, including that the California courts are not permitted to enforce a foreign court’s judgment when it is “repugnant to the public policy of this state or the United States” (most states’ laws include identical provisions).  Wofsy argued that because it is the public policy of the United States to support free expression under the First Amendment, and because fair use has been recognized by courts as one of the primary ways that copyright law accommodates the First Amendment, Wofsy should prevail because his use qualifies as fair use under U.S. law.  

The First Amendment and the Public Policy Exception to Enforcement of Foreign Judgments

Courts are hesitant to use the public policy exception to avoid enforcement of judgments from foreign courts. For example, the Second Circuit, interpreting New York’s version of the same act, explained that “[a] judgment is unenforceable as against public policy to the extent that it is repugnant to fundamental notions of what is decent and just in the State where enforcement is sought. The standard is high, and infrequently met.” Yet, free speech has been one area where courts have been willing to apply the exception, typically in libel cases. Even Congress has intervened with the SPEECH Act, which prohibits any domestic court from enforcing a foreign defamation judgment unless the foreign court “provided at least as much protection for freedom of speech and press in that case as would be provided by the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States and by the constitution and law of the State in which the domestic court is located.”

Fair Use and Foreign Judgments

There are very few cases, however, addressing whether the public policy exception applies in cases where a user would have had a viable fair use defense in the United States. The Supreme Court has explained that fair use is tightly connected with free speech rights, describing it as a “built-in free speech safeguard,” and the Second Circuit has explained that “First Amendment concerns are protected by and coextensive with the fair use doctrine.” Consequently, fair use should be an important part of the “public policy exception” analysis. 

But, as far as we are aware, only two courts have considered whether a viable fair use defense under U.S. law should shield a defendant from enforcement of a foreign judgment.  The first is a Second Circuit case from 2007, Sarl Louis Feraud Intern. v. Viewfinder, Inc., interpreting New York’s version of the California law discussed above. This was also a case involving a French judgment. The other is Sicre de Fontbrune.  In both cases, these courts concluded that, in order to resolve the question of whether the public policy exception applies to avoid enforcement of a foreign copyright judgment, it must first assess whether fair use applied because fair use is so entwined with free speech rights. Though there are only these two cases on point so far, this is a positive trend for U.S. creators who rely on fair use to promote speech that may not be permissible in other jurisdictions. 

U.S. authors are still left with some uncertainty, however, about whether they are protected from foreign judgments at home in the United States. In both Viewfinder and in Sicre de Fontbrune, the courts left several significant questions unresolved. In Sicre de Fontbrune, the court found that Wofsy’s use was ultimately not fair use, and so the court never addressed what a positive fair use ruling would mean, namely: would a positive fair use ruling always be sufficient to trigger the public policy exception, or are some fair uses not sufficiently connected to First Amendment protections to trigger the public policy exception? In addition, the court failed to consider how the scope of copyright protection in the U.S. should factor into the analysis, given that (at least in our opinion) it is questionable whether the images in the Zervos Catalogue would be independently protected under U.S. copyright law to begin with.

This is a long post, so that’s all for now. Stay tuned next week for a discussion of the Sicre de Fontbrune court’s fair use analysis, and why we think the court made some missteps.