Author Archives: Dave Hansen

The First Copyright Small Claims Court Judgment

Posted March 6, 2023

Authors Alliance members will recall the posts we’ve made over the years about the enactment and implementation of a new copyright small claims court, the “Copyright Claims Board,”  housed within the U.S. Copyright Office. 

Late last week, the CCB issued its very first judgment. It came in a case brought by photographer David Oppenheimer against an California attorney, David Prutton, who had used an unlicensed copy of one of Oppenheimer’s photos (a picture of the federal courthouse in Oakland) on his solo-practitioner website (h/t to Plagiarism Today, where we first saw reporting about the case, here). 

Screenshot of Prutton’s website, showing use of Oppenheimer’s photo of the Federal Courthouse in Oakland (twin buildings on the right).

The case had a head start because it was originally filed in federal district court, where the parties voluntarily agreed to dismiss the federal case and have the case referred to the CCB. You can read the entire history, including all the filings, here. The CCB ruled in favor of Oppenheimer, and awarded the photographer an award of statutory damages of $1,000, significantly less than the $30,000 (the maximum amount available to claimants in CCB proceedings) that Oppenheimer originally sought. 

In many ways, this was a pretty easy case for the CCB. Prutton readily admitted that he had used Oppenheimer’s unlicensed photo, in whole, on his website. Though Prutton raised a fair use defense, he didn’t bother to argue any except one of the four fair use factors. Prutton’s sole contention was that the impact on the market was so minimal—and that Oppenheimer had shown no evidence of harm—that Prutton should win on the fourth fair use factor. 

The CCB, noting that the fair use factors need to be balanced and weighed together, did its own analysis of all the fair use factors but concluded—rightly, I think—that for the other three fair use factors: 

  • Prutton’s use was not particularly transformative or for a new purpose, weighing against the use;
  • Oppenheimer’s original photo was creative (certainly enough for copyright protection, though reasonable minds might disagree on the extent of the creativity and therefore how strong this factor should weigh in its favor), weighing against the use;
  • Prutton has used the whole work, not a small portion of it, weighing against the use.

For the fourth fair use factor, Prutton argued that because Oppenheimer showed essentially no history of licensing revenue from this photograph, along with a history of other litigation that tended to indicate that Oppenheimer’s business was primarily oriented toward generating revenue through litigation, there was no meaningful market harm. The CCB disagreed, essentially concluding that it was Prutton’s job to show a lack of market harm (which they said he did not do), and the burden did not rest on Oppenheimer to show evidence of a market.  However, because Oppenheimer didn’t show any actual evidence of financial harm, this also led the CCB when assessing damages to grant an award far below Oppenheimer’s request—his original demand of $30,000 in damages was reduced to just $1,000.

Where the case was a little more interesting was how the CCB addressed Prutton’s defense of “unclean hands,” in which he essentially asks the CCB to excuse his use because Oppenheimer had acted improperly. If you do a quick search for “David Oppenheimer” and “copyright” you will find that Oppenheimer is frequently in court over alleged infringement of rights in his photographs, with fact patterns very similar to the one in this case, including heavy-handed negotiation tactics and aggressive use of litigation. In several of those cases, such as this case in the Western District of North Carolina, courts refused to grant Oppenheimer easy wins—concluding that Oppenheimer’s litigation tactics could reasonably be viewed as so problematic as to block his assertion of rights by the defense of “copyright misuse.” 

The CCB dismissed Prutton’s “unclean hands” defense by highlighting how unusual and extreme a plaintiff’s conduct has to be to fall subject to that general defense. The CCB didn’t, however, really assess Prutton’s more substantial “copyright misuse” defense, perhaps because Prutton didn’t raise it as a separate defense. In my view, copyright misuse may well have been a valid defense in this case. 

As the Western District of North Carolina explained in a previous case brought by Oppenheimer,  “misuse of copyright is a valid affirmative defense where the use of a copyright is contrary to the public policy upon which copyrights are granted. . . . Typically, the defense applies when seeking to avoid anti-competitive behavior, but it can also apply to other scenarios where a copyright owner attempts to extend the copyrights beyond their intended reach. . . . The underlying policy principles behind copyrights extend from the United States Constitution, with the relevant policy here being to promote the ‘useful arts.’” The court in that case concluded that if Oppenheimer’s “purpose in copyrighting the Copyrighted Work was to license it for use when individuals or companies need [his photo] then Plaintiff is likely not misusing his copyrights. Yet, a reasonable jury could find Plaintiff is using copyrights to derive an income from infringement suits and this issue is one of fact that the Court should not decide.” 

Lessons Learned

As this is the very first decision of the CCB, I don’t think we should draw sweeping conclusions from it about how the CCB will do its work. But it is interesting to see that this first case wasn’t exactly a suit between legal amateurs—Oppenheimer is a seasoned litigant who has brought many copyright cases, and Prutton is an attorney (albeit not one who specializes in copyright). Both made significant missteps in the presentation of their cases. And so, one observation I think we can make is that while the copyright small claims system is meant to have low barriers to participation, and the CCB seems inclined to go to extra lengths to help parties understand the process and present cogent filings, the CCB is not going to excuse incomplete argumentation. At least in this case, the CCB refused to assume facts or arguments not presented by the parties. That was true both for the plaintiff and defendant: plaintiffs who make damage assertions are going to need to show evidence of actual harm in order to get awards close to their requested amounts. And defendants who raise defenses will need to fully argue them; glossing over three of the four fair use factors is not a winning strategy. Nor does it seem passing references to defenses such as “unclean hands” and “copyright misuse” will work without adequate support. 

Jack Daniels v. VIP Products and the Freedom to Parody and Comment in the United States

Posted March 2, 2023

This post was written for the Kluwer Copyright Blog, and is based in part on an amicus brief filed last week by the Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic on behalf of Authors Alliance and ComicMix before the United States Supreme Court in Jack Daniels v. VIP Products.

Ordinarily, authors who write parodies look to copyright limitations and exceptions to protect their rights. In the United States, the doctrine of fair use has been held to permit parody in uses ranging from rap music to children’s books. These fair use rights, the courts have said, have their roots in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protections for freedom of speech.

In a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Jack Daniels v. VIP Products, those parody rights are at risk. In a twist, however, it is not copyright law, but rather an expansive view of trademark law, that poses this threat.

The facts of this case are straightforward: Jack Daniels, creator of the famous Tennessee Whiskey,  brought the trademark suit to stop VIP Products for production of a dog toy, which it titled “Bad Spaniels,” in the shape of Jack Daniels’ iconic whiskey bottle and label.  Jack Daniels asserts that the Bad Spaniels toy infringes on its trademark and dilutes its brand. VIP Products counters that the toy is meant to parody Jack Daniels’ bottle and is protected speech under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

Jack Daniel’s Whiskey Bottle (left) and VIP Products’ “Bad Spaniels” dog toy (right). From Jack Daniels Properties, Inc. s v. VIP Products, LLC, Case No. 22-148, U.S. Supreme Court, Brief for Petitioner (11 January 2023), page 3, available here.

Although dog toys and whiskey bottles seem relatively inconsequential to literature, parody, and creative work, this case could have a dramatic impact on how authors write about, and parody, famous brands.

Trademarks are a cornerstone of our shared cultural vernacular. Popular brands are woven into the fabric of our national identity, recognizable by and meaningful to those from many different backgrounds. Authors often draw on these shared associations in their literary works, sending beloved fictional characters to real colleges, serving them familiar cereals, and outfitting them in well-known clothing labels. Whether to evoke nostalgia or to immerse their readers, authors use trademarks both to simulate reality and to critique it.

While trademark law aims to protect consumers and prevent confusion as to the source of goods or services, it must be enforced in a manner consistent with the speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The freedom of authors to use trademarks in their works could be stifled by the threat of litigation. Overenforcement of trademark law runs contrary to both the purpose of intellectual property law and the U.S. constitutional legacy of protecting free expression. Protections for parody in other areas of the law, such as copyright’s fair use doctrine, will be undermined by a trademark ruling that allows for expansive enforcement.

If heightened First Amendment protections are not put in place, the threat of costly legal proceedings may cause creators to avoid the use of trademarks in their artistic works. While trademark law does have other mechanisms to protect authors of parody and commentary, such as a showing that an author’s use does not pose a likelihood of confusion, the process for successfully defending a trademark infringement case is remarkably expensive. In 2020, the American Intellectual Property Law Association reported that the median cost of trademark litigation in the U.S. before even going to trial ranged from $150,000 to $588,000. In the American system, litigants ordinarily bear their own costs, and so even an author who successfully defends such a suit would be on the hook for a large amount in legal fees. While litigation is commonplace for large corporations with significant legal resources, even a single lawsuit could be career-ending for an author without the resources to handle it.

If the threat of legal sanction hangs over the heads of writers, their literary characters may no longer use iPhones, eat at McDonald’s, or visit Disneyland. These uses offer meaningful expressive value to authors. Brands are often intentionally selected as cultural signifiers, chosen for the implicit associations they convey to readers. Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (a Disney theme park) would have a different meaning if it were instead titled Down and Out in an Amusement Park. Nor is The Devil Wears Luxury Clothing as evocative as The Devil Wears Prada.

Even when trademarks are evoked in literary circumstances that their owners find distasteful, these uses are still expressive and noncommercial, thus worthy of the highest First Amendment protection. Prioritizing the pecuniary interests of trademark owners over the First Amendment rights of creative artists could lead to a catastrophic chilling effect on authors’ speech based on the perceived risk of litigation, whether or not such risk is actualized. This result is both untenable and entirely unnecessary. It is possible to ensure that trademark owners still have access to a wide variety of robust and reasonable remedies in cases of true infringement without creating unnecessary panic in many other circumstances.

The Supreme Court has a clear doctrinal path to avoiding a speech-suppressive environment. In Rogers v. Grimaldi, 875 F.2d 994 (2d Cir. 1989), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck a balance between the interests of trademark owners and First Amendment speech by crafting a clear and efficient test for infringement with appropriate protections for speech. The Rogers court recognized the mark owner’s interest in preventing confusion while ensuring adequate protection for the vital free speech principles at play, and provided a rule to determine at the outset of litigation–before incurring substantial costs–when expressive works infringe trademark rights. Rogers, in short, provided that in cases of artistic or creative works, trademark infringement should only be considered “where the public interest in avoiding consumer confusion outweighs the public interest in free expression.” Ordinarily, the court explained, this rule “will normally not support [the] application of [trademark law] unless the title has no artistic relevance to the underlying work whatsoever, or, if it has some artistic relevance, unless the title explicitly misleads as to the source or the content of the work.”

A ruling that substantially adopts a test like that in Rogers would continue to protect the rights of trademark owners, while also ensuring that authors who reference popular brands are protected by providing a clear, consistent and efficient rule to protect authors. A ruling in favor of Jack Daniels, however, could strike fear into the hearts of risk-averse creators, chilling their speech by discouraging them from using certain trademarks in their works altogether. It would undermine the otherwise strong protections that U.S. courts have identified for parodists and other authors in U.S. copyright law, under the doctrine of fair use.

You can read more about our views on the interaction between trademark law and authors’ free expression rights in our amicus brief filed in Jack Daniels v. VIP Products, available here.

Fair Use Week 2023: How to Evade Fair Use in Two Easy Steps

Posted February 23, 2023

This post is by Dave Hansen and also posted to the Fair Use Week blog here.

Fair use is an essential part of the Copyright Act’s careful balance—on the one hand protecting rightsholders’ interests, while on the other “[permitting and requiring] courts to avoid rigid application of the copyright statute when, on occasion, it would stifle the very creativity which that law is designed to foster.” The Supreme Court has explained that fair use is a core part of what makes the Copyright Act compatible with the First Amendment guarantee of free expression. “First Amendment protections are ‘embodied . . . ’ in the ‘latitude for scholarship and comment’ safeguarded by the fair use defense.”

Fair use is what has allowed biographers to quote critically from originals when writing their own works, even when the copyrights are owned by the rich and powerful, as in cases involving L. Ron Hubbard and Howard Hughes. It’s what allows researchers to write and quote from unpublished manuscripts for literary criticism, as in this case about scholarly use of an unpublished work by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Baskin. It’s also what has allowed libraries to provide copies of books to blind readers, conduct research across texts, and make preservation copies. It allows reuse of images in support of news and political commentary, supports researchers who use tools like Google Image Search, and allows artists to use source materials to create transformative new works, such as parody.

Two easy steps to evade fair use

Given its importance, it may surprise you to learn that fair use is remarkably easy to evade. Savvy copyright owners do it all the time.  It takes just two easy steps.

First, you need to write a contract, specifically a “license” for the use of your work. In it, you dictate the terms on which you provide access to your work. You can impose almost any restrictions you like. Sometimes, contracts will restrict certain classes of uses: “you cannot reproduce this content for commercial use” or “you may download one copy of this work for personal consultation; you cannot reproduce or share any part of this work in whole or in part in any form, or share in any form with the public.”

Other contractual terms guard against specific threats. For example, Disney once won a lawsuit over use of its movie trailers, which Disney would license to websites only if they agreed that the website “may not be derogatory to or critical of the entertainment industry or of [Disney] (and its officers, directors, agents, employees, affiliates, divisions and subsidiaries) or of any motion picture produced or distributed by [Disney].”

The key here is that you can essentially rewrite the rules, and forbid those aspects of fair use that you disapprove of. Want to make sure critics can’t use your words against you? Just say they can’t. Want to make sure libraries don’t make preservation copies without paying you first? Want to make sure that instructors of college classes can only use excerpts of your book—even very small excerpts—if they pay every single time? It’s your prerogative.

Second, you need to make sure that everyone who gains access to your work is bound by your license. This sounds hard, but with online distribution, it’s actually pretty easy.

In the world of print copies, this was difficult because copies had a way of traveling beyond the control of the original purchaser. The “first sale” doctrine meant that buyers of copies could freely transfer those copies to third-party buyers (e.g., someone who buys a book at a used book store, or who borrows a book from a library) or give them away. So, even if you got the original buyer to agree to your terms, those downstream users didn’t have to. But there is no widespread acceptance of a buyer’s “digital first sale.” So, buyers can’t just transfer the copies they purchase to downstream users. Everyone who wants access to the digital copy must agree to the license. All you have to do is make sure that your materials are distributed exclusively on digital platforms that are subject to your terms, and you’re all set.

That’s it. Two easy steps and you’ve practically eliminated fair use. For any use you haven’t already authorized, you can just say no, require them to pay whatever you want, or just refuse to grant access. And if they don’t comply, at a minimum you’ve got at a slam-dunk breach of contract claim. 

Is it Seriously That Easy?

Unfortunately, this two-step approach–sometimes known as “contractual override”–reflects the prevailing wisdom and practice of many copyright owners. It is widely used online, by parties ranging from massive corporations such as Amazon or Netflix to small publishers and news outlets. And though the precedent for it isn’t airtight, when it has come up in court, the licensors have mostly prevailed. Because U.S. law so venerates “freedom of contract,” it has been difficult for policymakers or the courts to address the problem of rightsholders forbidding lawful fair uses under the terms of their licenses.

How did we get to this point? This is not a new or unexpected problem. You can look back to 1993, when law professor Jane Ginsburg  foresaw this state of affairs just as the possibilities of the internet were coming into view:

“In the digital environment posited here, contract protection may not be the fragile creature presumed in prior intellectual property preemption decisions. If access to works could be obtained only through the information provider (directly or through an authorized online distributor), and if copying could be electronically tracked or prevented, no ‘third parties’ to the contract would exist. When ‘we’re all connected,’ no functional difference may exist between a contract and a property right. At that point, it becomes necessary to consider whether limitations incorporated in the copyright law should be imported to its contractual substitute.”

Numerous others in the legal community soon made similar observations, such as Julie Cohen, Niva Elkin-Koren, and Andrew Shapiro, among others, who also wrote about aspects of this then-new challenge.

How to Protect Fair Use from Contractual Override 

A handful of efforts to address this problem have been mounted in Congress. In 2003 and 2005, representative Zoe Lofgren introduced a bill appropriately called the BALANCE Act (“Benefit Authors without Limiting Advancement or Net Consumer Expectations”), which addressed both the unavailability of “first sale” in the digital environment and contractual override of fair use. The proposed legislation provided that “[w]hen a digital work is distributed to the public subject to nonnegotiable license terms, such terms shall not be enforceable under the common laws or statutes of any State to the extent that they restrict or limit any of the limitations on exclusive rights under this title.” The BALANCE Act never passed however, and hasn’t been revisited in Congress since 2005.

Recent actions in other jurisdictions may provide renewed legislative interest and guidance on possible models to adopt. For example, in 2014, the UK passed legislation that limits contractual override of user rights—providing that “to the extent that a term of a contract purports to prevent or restrict the doing of any act which, by virtue of this section, would not infringe copyright, that term is unenforceable.” This language has been applied in the UK to exceptions that allow for making copies for persons with print and other disabilities, research and teaching, and text and data-mining. Similarly, the EU’s recent Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive contains similar protections for copyright exceptions, as does Singapore’s recent copyright bill. So far, though, there has been no indication of real interest from Congress in the United States.

It’s also possible that states could craft legislation. There has recently been a surge of interest in bills in a number of states aimed at protecting libraries’ ability to license books on reasonable terms (bills that Authors Alliance generally supports). These bills also go beyond what fair use protects—seeking to, for example, ensure that libraries have broad access to ebooks on “reasonable terms,” and addressing problems of major publishers simply refusing to license books to libraries. Maryland was the first state to actually pass such a law, but it was struck down as preempted by federal copyright law in AAP v. Frosh. The court concluded that because federal copyright law dictates the scope of rights governing public distribution of works, it was impermissible for the state of Maryland to interject its own rules about the scope of the publishers’ distribution rights.

It’s possible that state legislation that is more narrowly tailored—e.g., a state law that focused solely on protecting fair use—would not suffer the same fate as the Maryland law. In fact, the reasoning of the Maryland e-lending case would seem to support such a state law, since a state law protecting fair use would be maintaining, rather than altering, the balance of rights as defined by federal law.

Legal Strategies in Court

It’s also possible that the courts could intervene, though so far they have mostly declined to do so. It seems to me there are two or three viable ways for judicial intervention to be effective:

First, Courts could conclude that contracts (created under and governed by state law) are preempted by federal copyright law, which is what defines the scope of copyright’s exclusive rights.  The Constitution provides that federal law supersedes conflicting state law, and Congress has provided specific instructions on how such preemption should apply, stating that “all legal or equitable rights that are equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright as specified by section 106 . . .  are governed exclusively” by federal copyright law. Those exclusive rights of copyright owners are explicitly defined as being “subject to” the limitations including fair use, so it would make some sense for courts to view state law expansions of those rights as being in conflict with and therefore preempted by federal copyright law.

However, there are several negative precedents indicating that this approach may not work. Take Bowers v. Baystate, for example, a Federal Circuit case involving two competing computer aided design (CAD) software companies. Bowers contended that Baystate violated the terms of use on its software by reverse-engineering its product in violation of a clause explicitly prohibiting such use. Baystate contended that such reverse engineering was protected by fair use and that contract terms to the contrary should be preempted as inconsistent with federal law. The Federal Circuit, observing that as a general matter “most courts to examine this issue have found that the Copyright Act does not preempt contractual constraints on copyrighted articles,” concluded that “private parties are free to contractually forego the limited ability to reverse engineer a software product under the exemptions of the Copyright Act. . . . [A] state can permit parties to contract away a fair use defense or to agree not to engage in uses of copyrighted material that are permitted by the copyright law, if the contract is freely negotiated.”

Other courts addressing state contract law and other state law limitations on fair use (e.g,. this California right of publicity case) have largely followed the same approach. One notable exception to is Vault Corp. v. Quaid Software, Ltd., in which the Fifth Circuit invalidated a Louisiana law that permitted contracts to prohibit reverse engineering, even though federal law provides a specific exception (Section 117) that allows for such reverse engineering. Although not directly addressing fair use, the court’s holding could apply equally to state law contractual restrictions on fair use. The issue has not directly reached the Supreme Court, though there is a case, Genius v. Google, currently pending on a Petition for Certiorari that asks the Court to weigh in on the broader question of when federal law preempts contracts under state law.

Second, courts could conclude that the state common law (the body of law made up of legal principles established by courts over the years) on contracts does not permit contractual restrictions on fair use. This could come in a few different forms. One option might be for courts to consider more seriously the question of whether a valid contract is actually created in the first place, particularly in situations where users have no meaningful opportunity to negotiate terms and little ability to even understand what restrictions they are agreeing to. For years, following the lead of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in ProCD v. Zeidenberg, courts have been willing to accept that a valid agreement is formed even in situations with “shrinkwrap” or “browsewrap” licenses. But, despite ongoing criticism of this approach by many, the approach has prevailed. Courts might also take more seriously the public policy implications of fair use evasion more directly, by invoking traditional rules for contract interpretation that hold terms unenforceable when they violate public policy—e.g., agreements to commit a crime, or a tort, or restraint of trade. To date, however, I’m unaware of any such cases directly applying these principles to contracts that restrict fair use, though there is a large body of case law and this may merit more research.

Third, the courts could apply existing or new equitable doctrines, such as “copyright misuse” or a yet-to-be-defined right of “fair breach” to protect users from overenforcement of contracts that limit fair use. Professor Jane Ginsburg outlines the potential need for courts to develop their own remedy of “fair breach.” She observes that, as with the current licensing environment online, at some point “it becomes necessary to consider whether limitations incorporated in the copyright law should be imported to its contractual substitute. With respect to libraries and their users, one should inquire whether some kind of fair use exception is appropriate. This might take the form of a judge-made right of ‘fair breach,’ or legislatively imposed mandatory library-user rights.”

This idea of “fair breach” has drawn little attention since Ginsburg first identified its need and coined the term, but it merits further attention. “Fair breach” may have some similarity to the existing doctrine of copyright misuse, which could have some application to contracts that restrict fair use. A judge-made doctrine borrowed from the patent law doctrine of patent misuse, copyright misuse has been mostly applied to situations where copyright owners have attempted to exercise their rights to unfairly stifle competition. The primary question with copyright misuse is “whether the copyright is being used in a manner violative of the public policy embodied in the grant of a copyright.” If copyright misuse is found, the copyright isn’t invalidated, but courts have held that the owners’ copyright cannot be enforced to exclude the harmed party’s use. The Supreme Court has yet to acknowledge the existence of this doctrine, but numerous appellate courts have recognized it over the last thirty years.

A handful of cases suggest that extension of copyright misuse to fair-use limiting contracts could be effective. For example, in Assessment Technologies of Wi, LLC v. Wiredata, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that Assessment Technologies’ attempt to restrict access to data that was not copyrighted fell within the copyright misuse doctrine’s core focus: “preventing copyright holders from leveraging their limited monopoly to allow them control of areas outside the monopoly.”

 Video Pipeline, Inc. v Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Inc., also gives some encouragement. In that case, Video Pipeline brought a declaratory judgment action seeking a judgment that its use of video trailers from Disney and others was not copyright infringement. Among the defenses it cited was copyright misuse on the part of Disney. To support its copyright misuse argument, Video Pipeline pointed to the license term I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, which conditioned the license on an agreement to not disparage Disney or the entertainment industry. The court ultimately declined to find that those terms constituted copyright misuse, because the contract had a narrow focus and limited application: “we nonetheless cannot conclude on this record that the agreements are likely to interfere with creative expression to such a degree that they affect in any significant way the policy interest in increasing the public store of creative activity. The licensing agreements do not, for instance, interfere with the licensee’s opportunity to express such criticism on other web sites or elsewhere.” However, the court suggested that the outcome could have been different if the restrictions were more far reaching.   


Contractual override of fair use poses a real threat to free expression, especially given the increasing limits on distribution of copyrighted works online. Almost all online platforms that distribute copyrighted works impose restrictions that inhibit fair use to some degree. It takes just two easy steps. Thankfully, there are some plausible routes forward for improving the law to protect authors and others who rely on fair use to create new works and share knowledge with the world. There is also some reason for optimism due to renewed interest in the issue among scholars and organizations such as the Association of Research Libraries, which issued a report on contractual override for libraries, and is co-hosting a symposium with Washington College of Law at American University on the subject with perspectives from around the world.

Book Talk: History, Disrupted

Posted February 7, 2023

Join journalist CLAIRE WOODCOCK and author JASON STEINHAUER for a discussion about how social media & the web have changed the past.


The Internet has changed the past. Social media, Wikipedia, mobile networks, and the viral and visual nature of the Web have filled the public sphere with historical information and misinformation, changing what we know about our history. This is the first book to chronicle how and why it matters.

Purchase History, Disrupted from Better World Books.

From Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to artificial intelligence, machine learning and algorithms, history has been widely communicated and fiercely contested across the social Web as battles over the 1619 Project, the Trump presidency, Confederate monuments and history textbooks have exploded into public view. How does history intersect with today’s most pressing debates? How does history contribute to online debates about misinformation, disinformation, journalism, tribalism, activism, democracy, politics and identity?

In the midst of growing political division around the world, this information is critical to an engaged citizenry. As we collectively grapple with the effects of technology and its capacity to destabilize our societies, scholars, educators and the general public should be aware of how the Web and social media shape what we know about ourselves – and crucially, about our past.


JASON STEINHAUER is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in the USA. He is the founder and host of History Club on Clubhouse with more than 100,000 followers, and was the Founding Director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University, USA, from 2017 – 2020.  A public historian with over twenty years of experience in major cultural and historical institutions in the US, Steinhauer is the Founder of the History Communication Institute and the creator of the field of History Communication, which examines how history gets communicated on the World Wide Web. He has written for CNN, TIME, The Washington Post, Poynter, Inside Higher Ed, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Foreign Policy Research Institute (where he is a Senior Fellow). He has also delivered lectures overseas on behalf of the US Department of State, created a history podcast for the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, and appeared on C-SPAN’s American History TV.

CLAIRE WOODCOCK is an independent journalist based in Colorado. Her work has appeared in Motherboard Vice, NPR, Literary Hub, Aspen Public Radio, Boulder Weekly and many other publications. Her current work focuses on the politics of information in libraries. Woodcock graduated with a B.A. in English Literature from the University of New York at Fredonia in 2015 and is currently an M.A. candidate in the Media & Public Engagement program at CU Boulder. Woodcock is also a Digital Ownership Fellow with NYU Law’s Engelberg Center on Innovation Policy and Law, researching the digital book marketplace.

BOOK TALK: History, Disrupted
March 9 @ 10am PT / 1pm ET
Register now for the virtual discussion

Author talk: The Copyright Wars with Peter Baldwin and Pamela Samuelson

Posted December 1, 2022

We are so pleased to be able to co-sponsor this next book talk with Internet Archive, hosted on December 15 at 10am PT/ 1pm ET. Join copyright scholar and Authors Alliance Board President PAMELA SAMUELSON for a discussion with historian and Authors Alliance Advisory Board member PETER BALDWIN about his book THE COPYRIGHT WARS, covering three centuries’ worth of trans-Atlantic copyright battles. 

Today’s copyright wars can seem unprecedented. Sparked by the digital revolution that has made copyright—and its violation—a part of everyday life, fights over intellectual property have pitted creators, Hollywood, and governments against consumers, pirates, Silicon Valley, and open-access advocates. But while the digital generation can be forgiven for thinking the dispute between, for example, the publishing industry and libraries is completely new, the copyright wars in fact stretch back three centuries—and their history is essential to understanding today’s battles. THE COPYRIGHT WARS—the first major trans-Atlantic history of copyright from its origins to today—tells this important story.

This event is co-sponsored with Internet Archive.

US Copyright Office Defends Artists’ Rights to Terminate their Copyright Transfers

Posted November 11, 2022
Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

UPDATE: You can find Authors Alliance’s comment on the Copyright Office’s proposed rulemaking here.

“Termination of Transfer,” is a legal tool that allows authors to recapture rights previously handed over to another party, even if their contract contains language to the contrary. It’s a really great idea. The policy rationale is that we need a way to recognize “the unequal bargaining position of authors, resulting in part from the impossibility of determining a work’s value until it has been exploited.” Thus, Congress in Sections 203 (for pre-1978 works) and 304 (for post-1978 works) implemented rules that allow authors to regain their rights by terminating transfers of them after a minimum of 35 years. 

The problem with termination of transfer is that almost no one uses it. Professor Rebecca Giblin has written about this extensively–for example, in an article she co-authored last year demonstrating that in the eight years since works first became eligible for termination under Section 203, creators exercised their termination rights for very few works (e.g. only around 800 books over that time period, a tiny fraction of those eligible). 

The system is incredibly complex and confusing, with numerous exceptions and technical requirements, such that creators can’t reasonably navigate it without significant time, expense, and usually a team of lawyers. I won’t go into all the gory details, but this report by Public Knowledge provides a good overview, highlighting the ways that Termination of Transfer in practice fails creators. This is due to  the law’s complexity and the ways publishers and other corporate rightsholders systematically weaponize that complexity to prevent creators from benefiting from termination of transfer. It can be hard for creators to know how to stand up for their rights, or even to know that their rights are at risk in the first place.

Exhibit 1: The Mechanical Licensing Collective’s Attempt to Erase the Termination Right for Songwriters

A good recent example of this kind of complexity is buried in a recent regulatory filing from the U.S. Copyright Office titled “Termination Rights and the Music Modernization Act’s Blanket License.”  

In it, the Copyright Office recounts an effort by music industry powers to essentially eliminate the termination right for songwriters who would be otherwise entitled to royalties for their songs when sold or streamed digitally. Thankfully, the Copyright Office is paying attention and has crafted a proposed rule to prevent such abuse. 

A little bit of background: in the world of music licensing, songwriters often transfer their rights to music publishers. Among the ways that those publishers make money is by licensing the underlying musical composition (lyrics, music) for use in actual sound recordings. These are typically referred to as “mechanical licenses.” In 2018, Congress passed the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”), which established a new blanket licensing system for digital music providers (e.g. Spotify, YouTube Music, and Pandora) that want to stream or offer downloadable digital copies and need to obtain mechanical rights. The system is operated by something called the “Mechanical Licensing Collective,” a nonprofit designated by the Copyright Office pursuant to the MMA and run by a board of 13 directors (ten music publishing executives and three songwriters). 

Given this new system of blanket licensing, the MLC had to decide how it would pay out royalties in situations where a songwriter terminated her transfer of rights to a music publisher. The way this works in other contexts–e.g. when ASCAP receives notice from a creator that a grant has been terminated–is that the licensing intermediary holds onto any royalties until it is clear (either by agreement of the parties, or court order) who owns the rights, and then pays out royalties to the appropriate party. 

The MLC decided to take a different approach–it proposed a default rule that said that, even when a creator terminates rights, the appropriate payee would be whomever held rights in the work at the time when it happened to have been saved on a digital music provider’s server. This bizarre proposal is a bit easier to understand when you consider that it would also conveniently mean that the publishers would almost always be entitled to all future mechanical license royalties. The MLC, after finding that the Copyright Office and many creators objected to this brazen proposal, changed course (modestly) by adopting a different rule that did basically the same thing. Instead of establishing a process for holding funds until a dispute was resolved, the MLC adopted a rule that as long as a publisher had actively licensed the work and used it at least once before the termination date, the publisher would forever receive royalties from the MLC, and not the creator who terminated rights.  

The MLCs legal rationale for its default rules was based on an incredibly generous (to publishers) reading of one of the exceptions to the termination right: the “derivative work” exception, which states that “a derivative work prepared under authority of the grant before its termination may continue to be utilized under the terms of the grant after its termination.” The MLC’s position was that this exception applied to any of the sound recordings used by digital music providers that incorporate music from songwriters, despite the statutory language in the MMA and elsewhere indicating that funds for mechanical rights under the statutory blanket license should be paid out to whomever the copyright holder is at the time of the actual use. 

Thankfully, and unlike the MLC, the Copyright Office decided it would read the law for what it says. It concluded, reasonably, that the correct rule should be that whoever actually owns the rights should receive payment at the time the work is used. We plan to submit a comment supporting the Copyright Office’s proposed rule. You can do so too, here. 

Making Termination Easier

We strongly believe that it should be easier for creators to exercise their termination rights, without having to jump through complex hoops and without having to battle with moneyed industry interests that seek to exploit and expand exceptions to the rule. We’ve created a number of resources to help authors terminate their transfers and regain their rights. These include a set of Frequently Asked Questions, a tool (created with Creative Commons) to guide authors through the process, and guidance and templates for how to effectuate a termination request. If you have questions or ideas on how we can help make the process easier, including advocating for changes in the law to make the system better, we want to hear from you! You can find us at or online on Twitter at @auths_alliance.

Book Talk: Walled Culture by Glyn Moody

Authors Alliance is very pleased to announce an upcoming virtual book talk, co-sponsored by the Internet Archive, with journalist and editor Maria Bustillos in conversation with author Glyn Moody for a discussion about copyright, digital rights and the 21st-century walls blocking access to culture.

This is the first in a series we’re planning with Internet Archive to highlight books at the intersection of authorship, information policy, and technology. So, be on the lookout for more later this fall!

Book Talk: Walled Culture with Glyn Moody & Maria Bustillos
Co-sponsored by Internet Archive & Authors Alliance
Thursday, November 10 @ 10am PT / 1pm ET
Register now for the virtual discussion.

While Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa get sued for alleged plagiarism and the majority of creators see pennies for their hard work, record labels continue to explode. Libraries struggle to make ebooks accessible while being sued by an increasingly powerful book industry. In his book WALLED CULTURE (download for free or purchase in print), Glyn Moody explores how the transition from the physical to digital world has locked up access to culture and knowledge through copyright walls – specifically, outdated laws designed for the traditional, analogue world. 

WALLED CULTURE is the first book providing a compact, non-technical history of digital copyright and its problems over the last 30 years, and the social, economic and technological implications.

Steering our conversation will be Maria Bustillos, writer and editor of the Brick House Cooperative. Bustillos is a passionate advocate for equitable access to information, and has written extensively about issues relating to ebooks, publishing, and digital ownership.


Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s, the Times Literary Supplement, ESPN, Bloomberg, VICE, Gawker, The Awl, and elsewhere. She writes the public editor column for MSNBC at the Columbia Journalism Review.

Glyn Moody is a technology writer and published journalist who has been writing about the digital world for 40 years, the internet for nearly 30, and copyright for 20. He is best known for his book, Rebel Code: Linus and the Open Source Revolution (2001). He is also the author of Digital Code of Life: How Bioinformatics is Revolutionizing Science, Medicine, and Business (2004). His weekly column, “Getting Wired”, was the first regular column about the business use of the internet, and ran 400 total articles between 1994 through 2001. More recently, he has written nearly 2,000 articles for the leading tech policy site Techdirt.

Book Talk: Walled Culture with Glyn Moody & Maria Bustillos
Co-sponsored by Internet Archive & Authors Alliance
Thursday, November 10 @ 10am PT / 1pm ET
Register now for the virtual discussion.