Author Archives: Rachel Brooke

The Freedom of Information Act and Authorship

Posted September 14, 2021
Photo by Brandon Mowinkel on Unsplash

The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) is a federal statute that allows members of the public to request non-public documents from the federal government. Documents authored by the federal government are considered part of the public domain when it comes to copyright law, and FOIA is similarly premised on the idea that people have a right to know what their government is up to. FOIA requests are a key part of the investigative process for many journalists, but FOIA can be an incredibly useful research tool for many types of authors, as it enables access to new, primary sources of information about federal government activity. 

In today’s blog post, we will introduce FOIA and explain how authors can benefit from this law. Next week, we will discuss FOIA litigation involving authors in order to offer takeaways for authors interested in using FOIA in the course of their research and writing.

What is FOIA?

The Freedom of Information Act was enacted into law in 1967. Under the Act, anyone can request documents produced and/or held by a federal government agency—such as the IRS, State Department, NASA, or ICE—which is obligated to turn over any documents it possesses that fall within the scope of the request. FOIA has enabled requesters to obtain investigative files compiled by the FBI, e-mails between certain government officials, and data collected by federal agencies, for example.

However, an agency may withhold or redact documents if they fall into one of nine delineated “exemptions” to FOIA. Broadly speaking, the exemptions protect national security interests, the integrity of ongoing law enforcement investigations, inter-agency deliberations, confidential commercial information supplied to the government by private entities, the privacy of individuals and law enforcement officials, and information that is exempt from disclosure under another federal statute. FOIA only applies to the executive branch of the federal government, meaning that it does not apply to the courts or Congress, nor does it apply to state governments. However, every state has its own public records law which allows requesters to obtain state government records under similar procedures. The procedure for filing a FOIA request varies by federal agency, but most can now be submitted online, via an online form on an agency’s website or via email. If you are interested in filing a FOIA request with a federal government agency, the federal FOIA website can direct you towards the right web form or point of contact.

Once a request has been made, the relevant government agency is required to issue a response within 20 business days, otherwise the request can be considered to be “constructively denied,” that is, denied based on the agency’s lack of response. The agency’s response, if one is provided, can grant the request in full, grant it in part and deny it in part, or deny the request in full. Then, the requester has an opportunity to appeal the agency’s response by sending another communication explaining why the request should not have been denied, in what is known as an administrative appeal. If the requester is not satisfied with the agency’s response to the appeal, they may file a lawsuit against the government agency to which the request was sent to enforce FOIA and try to compel the agency to produce the requested documents.

FOIA for Authors

Under FOIA, any person or entity (like a university or commercial business) can make a request, regardless of citizenship or the motivation for sending the request. Yet the FOIA statute does contain some protections for certain types of requesters, including journalists and authors.

First, FOIA provides for “expedited processing,” whereby an agency must respond in 10 business days, rather than 20, in some circumstances. One such circumstance of relevance to authors is when the requester is a “person primarily engaged in disseminating information” and there is an “urgency to inform the public concerning actual or alleged Federal Government activity.” This provision has typically been applied to journalists, but authors have requested expedited processing under the provision as well.

Second, FOIA allows for a “fee waiver” that excuses certain requesters from having to pay fees for copying and staff time employed performing a search for the records requested (though requesters may have to pay for copying costs incurred in excess of $100). Members of the news media are entitled to a fee waiver under the statute, as are “educational [and] noncommercial scientific institutions, whose purpose is scholarly or scientific research.” Authors affiliated with academic institutions are often granted such a fee waiver. To receive a fee waiver, an author must actually request one in their request, so it can be a good idea to ask for one if you think you might fall into either category. As a practical matter, it never hurts to ask!

One potential downside of FOIA as a research tool for authors is that the timing of an agency’s response can be somewhat unpredictable. While FOIA mandates that an agency must issue a final response within 20 business days, in practice, FOIA requests often languish for much longer than this, and in some cases, patience will eventually yield results. Yet writing projects often have their own timelines and deadlines, making it difficult to plan around the outcome of FOIA requests.

On the other hand, advancements in technology have in many ways made FOIA more accessible to authors and other requesters of government documents. In 1996, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 were enacted into law. These amendments require agencies to make their “reading room” records available online, and encourage agencies to send records electronically wherever possible, among other electronic record-friendly provisions. Today, most responsive records are sent to requesters electronically, though there are exceptions. The E-FOIA amendments encourage agencies to send records in a more accessible, digital format. They have also had the effect of decreasing the delays and costs associated with copying and mailing physical documents, making FOIA more usable to authors and the general public.

Library Lending, Author Incomes, and Controlled Digital Lending

Posted August 17, 2021
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

In the debates around controlled digital lending (“CDL”), much has been said about whether and how CDL affects author incomes. Recently, the Internet Archive requested 10 years of sales data during the discovery phase of its ongoing lawsuit with several large publishers, seeking to support its argument that its digitization projects did not negatively impact book sales. As an authors’ group that represents the interests of authors who care deeply about their works reaching broad audiences, Authors Alliance is a unique voice in the conversation around the impact of different types of library lending on authors’ livelihoods. In today’s post, we will discuss the intersections between author income, traditional library lending, and CDL. 

How Do Authors Make Money from Library Sales?

When an author signs a publication contract for her work, she is agreeing to be compensated by her publisher pursuant to the terms in the contract. The two main ways authors are paid are through an “advance against royalties”—an upfront payment or payments made when the contract is signed, the manuscript is delivered, and/or when the book is published—and through royalty payments. Once any advance paid to the author has “earned out” such that author royalties from sales exceed the advance paid to the author, the publisher pays the author a percentage of each sale. When a consumer purchases a book, the author then will receive a percentage of the sale based on the royalty rate set in her publication contract. 

Like members of the public, libraries purchase books, and when they do so, authors are entitled to royalties on those sales. Importantly, libraries have purchased and lent books to patrons since time immemorial. In fact, in the mid-20th century, public libraries were the most reliable market for new books. But changes in the publishing ecosystem and widespread reductions in library budgets over time have led to a reversal of this pattern—in 2015, public libraries were responsible for just over 1% of book sales. 

Once a library owns a physical book, the library is permitted to lend it out as many times as it likes, based both on public policy and what is known as the “first sale doctrine.” First sale doctrine is based on a provision within U.S. copyright law that allows the owner of a physical copy of a copyrighted work, like a book or DVD, to sell, lend, or otherwise dispose of that copy however she wishes, provided that it does not infringe any of the copyright holder’s exclusive rights. For example, the owner of a copy of a book can lend it out to her friend, lend it out to another friend after the first friend has returned it, and then give it away to a third friend. On the other hand, the owner of a copy of a book cannot make multiple copies to share with her friends simultaneously without infringing on the copyright holder’s exclusive rights of reproduction and distribution. Because of public policy favoring libraries’ roles in the knowledge ecosystem and the first sale doctrine, libraries can lend out copies of books they have purchased as many times as they are able.  

How Does Traditional Library Lending Impact Author Income?

As discussed above, library lending results in author income when the libraries buy books in the first instance. But the effect of library lending on consumer book sales, has, perhaps surprisingly, not been the subject of extensive researchas of 2019, there had never been a major study on the impact of library lending on the publishing industry as a whole, but there has long been evidence that library patrons also purchase books, and may even do so more frequently than non-library patrons. In a 2020 survey, nearly a third of consumer respondents reported purchasing a book that they first found in a library, a number that was even higher for avid readers. 

Library advocates have long championed the ability of libraries to bring attention to authors and their works, which often results in increased income for those authors. Many libraries host author events in which an author’s books are available for sale to attendees, and these events often result in more demand for that author’s books at the library, leading the library itself to purchase more copies, resulting in more author income. Libraries are also known to increase discoverability of books, both through author events and by exposing patrons to new books and new authors in other ways. In the 2020 survey mentioned above, 30% of respondents reported that, when a book they wanted to read was unavailable at their local library, they purchased the book, either online or at a local bookstore. 

How Does Controlled Digital Lending Impact Author Income?

Controlled digital lending is a lending model many libraries across the country have implemented in recent years to increase access to works in their collections. CDL involves a library scanning a physical book it has purchased and is already in its collection, and then lending out this scanned copy in lieu of the physical book. Under the CDL model, libraries are not permitted to lend out more digital copies than they have physical copies at one time. This so-called “owned to loaned ratio” ensures that CDL stays within the bounds of what the first sale doctrine permits: each copy may be loaned out to only one patron at a time. Because libraries have already purchased the physical copies, authors have already received any royalty income they were entitled to from the sales. 

Similar to interlibrary loans, CDL makes works available to readers who cannot access the physical spaces where the books are held. In this way, CDL operates as an analogue to traditional print lending: rather than a library patron having to physically travel to a library to check out the book they want to read, they can receive a digital copy loan instead, which comes with the same controls as print lending—limited check out times and a maximum number of loans at one time based on the number of copies the library has purchased. CDL seeks to replicate digitally what is difficult to achieve with physical books: sending a book to a reader who is interested in reading it, wherever she may be located, within the confines of limited library budgets. Many have also argued that CDL also constitutes a fair use, further bolstering the legal basis for the practice. 

The role of CDL in the library ecosystem has taken on a new prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic, when libraries have reduced hours or shuttered physical spaces altogether. Over the past year and a half, CDL has served as one important way to bridge the gap and ensure readers can still access library books despite these limitations. And importantly, due to the requirement that a library purchase a print book in the first place and the limitations put in place to ensure that each loan is discrete and temporary, CDL does not hurt author incomes. In fact, due to libraries’ roles in increasing the discoverability of books, particularly when they are digitized, CDL may even result in more sales for authors whose books have been made available in this way.

Authors Alliance has long supported CDL as a way to help books reach readers. Many individual authors also support CDL, as it helps works reach readers who otherwise could not access them, bringing reputational benefits and the potential to increase book sales to consumers. 

Update: Library E-Book Lending Legislation and Partnerships

Posted July 27, 2021
Photo by Perfecto Capucine on Unsplash

It is no secret that Authors Alliance loves libraries, and we support policies that help libraries fulfill their essential role of making knowledge and culture available and accessible to all. In recent months, several states have proposed and in some cases passed legislation that requires publishers to license e-books to libraries under “reasonable terms.” Similarly, bookselling and publishing giant Amazon has taken steps to make its content available to libraries, following years of refusal to license e-books to libraries altogether. In today’s post, we will share some of the details of these exciting developments. 

State Legislation

Over the course of the past year, three state legislatures have introduced legislation that would impose limits on a publisher’s ability to sell e-books to libraries at a high cost. Under the current licensing model, libraries can pay as much as $60 per title for an e-book license, which often have very restrictive terms, whereas consumers can purchase an e-book license for the same title at a fraction of the cost. The first of these bills was passed in Maryland, and the New York state legislature has also recently approved the New York bill. A bill in Rhode Island is currently pending. Additionally, groups in Connecticut, Texas, Virginia, and Washington have reportedly begun advocating for similar legislation. 

Maryland’s Library E-Book Lending Law

Maryland was the first state to enact legislation requiring publishers to offer libraries e-book and digital audiobook licenses on reasonable terms. The Maryland state legislature unanimously passed the bill in March, but before it was approved by the governor, it faced last-minute opposition from the Association of American Publishers (“AAP”), who claimed the bill was unconstitutional. Despite these challenges, Governor Larry Hogan announced that the bill was enacted into law in late May. The law will go into effect in January 2022, and requires publishers who license “electronic literary products” (which may be broader in scope than “e-books”) to the general public to “offer to license the product to public libraries in the State on reasonable terms that would enable public libraries to provide library users with access[.]” It remains to be seen what will constitute “reasonable terms” under the new Maryland law, but the Maryland Library Association has recently issued a statement providing guidance on what might constitute reasonable terms and how these might be developed.

Despite the tough opposition it faced from publishers, the Maryland law has been described by its proponents as “fairly mild.” This is because it does not fundamentally change the e-book licensing scheme employed by publishers, whereby e-books are temporarily licensed to libraries, who remain unable to actually own these digital copies. Instead, the law simply requires publishers to offer e-book licenses to libraries on terms they can afford in order to allow libraries to perform their essential function of serving patrons: readers are not served when libraries cannot afford e-book licenses. This problem took on particular salience during the pandemic, when many readers were unable to access physical books at all. The new Maryland law takes aim at this issue without disrupting the traditional e-book licensing model that publishers are reluctant to abandon. Nonetheless, the AAP has since affirmed its opposition to these legislative efforts, maintaining that the Maryland law and other state legislation like it are inconsistent with federal copyright law.

New York’s Library E-Book Lending Bill

Last month, the New York state legislature passed a bill similar to the Maryland bill. Just as in Maryland, state legislators voted unanimously in favor of the bill’s passage. The New York bill also requires publishers to offer libraries e-book licenses on “reasonable terms” if those e-book licenses are also available for purchase by the public. The New York bill proceeds from the premise that “[p]ublic libraries provide equitable access to information for all.” Because many New Yorkers (like many readers writ large) prefer digital books over physical ones, whether due to print or mobility disabilities or for ease of access, the bill takes aim at “discriminatory practices” such as e-book embargos, whereby libraries must wait months to purchase licenses for new e-books.

The New York bill has not yet been sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his signature, but advocates are “cautiously optimistic” that he will sign once it has been sent. The bill must be sent to the governor by the end of the calendar year, and once signed, will take effect after just 19 days. This means that while the New York bill is not yet law, it may well take effect before Maryland’s new law if sent to and signed by Governor Cuomo. 

Rhode Island’s Library E-Book Lending Bill

In Rhode Island, the analogue bill to the Maryland and New York bills was re-introduced in April of this year after a similar bill last legislative session failed to gain momentum. The 2021 bill, which, like the Maryland legislation, includes digital audiobooks, was then recommended for further study by the House Corporations Committee, with no further updates since late April. Former Rhode Island state senator, Mark McKenney, penned an op-ed voicing his support for the bill, pointing out that “libraries lending books to patrons hasn’t put publishers out of business,” and calling out Amazon specifically for its policy of refusing to sell or license e-books it publishes to libraries and schools altogether.

Amazon and the Digital Public Library of America

In December 2020, Amazon announced it was in talks with the Digital Public Library of America (“DPLA”) to make thousands of books it publishes available to public libraries via the DPLA exchange. The long-awaited deal between the organizations was signed in May, and is set to go into effect sometime this summer. The partnership contemplates several different licensing models, including flexible “bundles” of lends and more traditional models involving time limits and restrictions on how many patrons can check out an e-book at a time. Librarians have applauded Amazon for offering the less restrictive “bundle” models, which provide additional flexibility for libraries. Unlike the state library e-book lending legislation, the Amazon-DPLA partnership will offer an alternative to the traditional licensing scheme.

Library advocates are cautiously optimistic about the Amazon-DPLA partnership, but also note that how much it will help libraries will depend on how Amazon prices its e-books for libraries, which is at this point unknown. Unlike the state library e-book lending legislation discussed above, the Amazon deal makes no mention of how library e-book licenses will be priced. Moreover, not all Amazon-published titles will be made available through the partnership—self-published Kindle originals and Audible audiobooks are not included in the program, for example. Another limitation of the Amazon-DPLA partnership is that it requires libraries to participate in the DPLA marketplace, and will make the e-books readable with the SimplyE reading app, an open source e-reading platform developed by the New York Public Library. Many library patrons today access e-books via more popular marketplaces such as OverDrive, and both iBooks and Kindle are much more popular e-reading platforms with which patrons are likely to be more familiar. Yet the Amazon-DPLA partnership is undoubtedly a step in the right direction towards ensuring greater access to books published by Amazon. Moreover, the deal is not exclusive, meaning that Amazon could develop similar partnerships in the future in order to make its e-books even more accessible to library patrons. 

Copyright and American Independence Day

Posted July 6, 2021
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

In today’s post, we will be sharing some facts about copyright law and American Independence Day. While the two might not seem to be closely connected, both the history of the Fourth of July and the ways in which we celebrate today implicate copyright law in some unexpected ways.

Patriotic Public Domain Works: The Declaration of Independence

The Fourth of July celebrates the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, whereupon the American colonies declared themselves to be independent from England. The Declaration of Independence is in the public domain for several reasons. Copyright buffs may recall that works published prior to 1926 are in the public domain, and this principle applies to this historic document. But in fact, the lack of a system of copyright protection in the American colonies at the time of the Declaration’s issuance means that it was probably never protected by U.S. copyright law. The first federal copyright law was not passed until 1790, and did not apply retrospectively, but only to new works of authorship. And today, literary works authored by the federal government are automatically in the public domain. 

The Library of Congress makes scanned copies of early historic documents in the public domain, including the Declaration of Independence, available online. Because they are in the public domain, anyone is free to use these documents in whatever manner they wish—reading them aloud to crowds, translating them into other languages, or printing and distributing copies—without fear of copyright liability.

Patriotic Public Domain Works: “The Star Spangled Banner”

The American national anthem too is a part of the public domain. The lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner” originate from a poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. The musical composition was taken from an earlier written song—“the Anacreontic Song,” official song of the British gentleman’s club, the Anacreontic Society—which was already in the public domain at the time, having been written in the late 1700s (you can hear a full recording of “The Anacreontic Song” on the Smithsonian’s website). Key’s poem set to this tune was subsequently re-titled “The Star Spangled Banner.” The patriot song remained popular for years, and was officially adopted as the American national anthem in 1931. 

Interestingly, only Key’s lyrics were officially adopted as the national anthem. While “The Anacreontic Song” has remained the unofficial, traditional musical composition for “The Star Spangled Banner,” creators have been empowered to create their own adaptations, which could potentially rise in popularity and usurp the original tune (though this has not happened). These adaptations can also draw heavily from the original tune because it is in the public domain: such adaptations could have been considered derivative works that would infringe the copyright owner’s exclusive rights, were the song protected by copyright. Well-known adaptations of “The Star Spangled Banner,” like Igor Stravinsky’s four arrangements of the song and Jimi Hendrix’s instrumental rendition at Woodstock, may not have been possible without the freedom to adapt that the public domain enables. 

Copyright in Revolutionary America

Prior to the issuance of the Declaration of Independence, when the American colonies remained under British rule, there was no copyright protection in the present-day United States. This is because the British copyright law, the Statute of Anne, did not apply to the American colonies. As a result, creators had little to no control over the dissemination of their works, and were not entitled to royalty payments. However, the largely agrarian nature of the present-day U.S. at the time made copyright protections less of a priority for the colonists and revolutionaries. Over the next 14 years, as the country evolved, the Continental Congress and later the Congress of the Confederation (the legislative body established under the Articles of Confederation) allowed for private copyright acts and state law copyright acts, resulting in inconsistencies across states and limited protection for creators. Finally, the first federal copyright bill was signed into law by George Washington in 1790. This law mirrored the Statute of Anne nearly word for word, though U.S. and U.K. copyright laws have evolved in different ways in the intervening century. 

The Fourth of July Today: Copyright in Fireworks Displays

Across the U.S., many celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks displays, which can be expressive and creative. But fireworks displays are an example of the kind of creative expression that copyright typically does not protect. This is because of the fixation requirement in American copyright law: for creative expression to receive copyright protection, the Copyright Act requires that it be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. The fixation requirement means an improvised speech which is not recorded or documented in any way cannot protected by copyright, for example. And similarly, fireworks displays are simply too ephemeral and intangible to satisfy the fixation requirement. 

But the story does not end there: photographs or film recordings of fireworks displays are eligible for copyright protection, because those types of expression are fixed—recorded on film or saved on a digital camera. Images or recordings of fireworks displays further possess the “modicum of creativity” necessary for a work to be protected, since the person who captured the image or recording made at least some creative choices in how they captured the display. Additionally, a recent court case found that “command protocols” and the underlying computer codes for the actual launching of fireworks were copyrightable as software, which is a type of literary work eligible for copyright protection. So while the actual display of fireworks—what you may have witnessed this Independence Day—cannot be protected by copyright, fixed images of the fireworks and the computer program that made their display possible can be protected. 

Fair Use and Parody in Fiction

Posted November 24, 2020
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

In celebration of National Novel Writing month, Authors Alliance is pleased to bring you resources and information about copyright issues of note for fiction authors. In this post, we will go over fair use as it applies to fiction writing. Last week, we discussed copyright protection for literary characters, and the preceding week, explored exceptions to copyright that are relevant to fiction authors.

One of the exceptions to copyright we talk about most often at Authors Alliance is fair use. Fair use is a doctrine that allows the use of copyrighted works without permission in certain circumstances, and is included in the Copyright Act. Authors Alliance offers a full-length guide to fair use for nonfiction authors, as well as a dedicated resource page designed to help authors navigate fair use issues. Within fiction, fair use comes up in different contexts than we normally see in nonfiction, as many of the core purposes of fair use—news reporting, research, and nonprofit educational uses—do not fit neatly within the ambit of commercial fiction. For this reason, fair use in fiction is often discussed in terms of parody. Parody— first discussed as a fair use by the Supreme Court in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music—works as a form of comment and criticism, core purposes of fair use. In the aforementioned case, the Court stated that parody had to “mimic an original to make its point.” While mimicking an original work is typically indicative of the kind of copying that can be infringement, in the context of parody, this similarity is essential for the parody to be successful. The Campbell Court defined a parody as a “literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author or a work for comic effect or ridicule,” a definition which courts have more or less applied since. 

Suntrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin 

The seminal court case for parody fair use in fiction is Suntrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin, in which the estate of Margaret Mitchell, author of the perennial bestseller, Gone With the Wind, sued an author who had borrowed elements of the story for copyright infringement. The case concerned a book written by author Alice Randall entitled The Wind Done Gone, which Randall stated was “a critique of [Gone With the Wind]’s depiction of slavery and the Civil–War era American South.” The Wind Done Gone subverted many of the racial stereotypes in Mitchell’s novel, turning a story of a wealthy white family living on a plantation in Georgia into one which “flips [Mitchell’s] traditional race roles” and criticizes the racist tones in Mitchell’s prose by foregrounding complex and well-developed Black characters. 

The Wind Done Gone incorporates fifteen separate characters from Gone With the Wind into its story, as well as several distinct elements of the plot, “such as the scenes in which Scarlett kills a Union soldier and the scene in which Rhett stays in the room with his dead daughter Bonnie, burning candles.” Yet the court relied on the Campbell decision to find that Randall’s use of Mitchell’s work was a fair one—it was necessary to directly evoke the work in order to comment critically on it in a way that would be clear to readers. 

Dr. Seuss v. Penguin Books

Two other cases involving alleged parodies of works by Dr. Seuss illustrate the nuances of parody fair use a bit further. In Dr. Seuss v. Penguin Books, the estate of Theodor Geisel (the author of the Dr. Seuss Books) sued Penguin Books for its publication of an allegedly infringing work. The Cat NOT in the Hat! A Parody by Dr. Juice was “a rhyming summary of highlights from the O.J. Simpson double murder trial” which evoked the style of Seuss’s work. Penguin argued that the work was a parody of The Cat in the Hat and thus a fair use. The Cat NOT in the Hat! included language telling the O.J. Simpson trial story in the style of Seuss, such as “One Knife? / Two Knife? / Red Knife / Dead Wife” and “[I]f the Cat didn’t do it / Then Who? Then Who?” Yet evoking Seuss’s style was not enough to make the work a parody—the court emphasized that “[a]lthough The Cat NOT in the Hat! does broadly mimic Dr. Seuss’ characteristic style, it does not hold his style up to ridicule.” Unlike The Wind Done Gone, The Cat NOT in the Hat! did not comment on the original work, but merely borrowed its style to achieve different aims. For this reason, the court found that the work was not a parody, and that the author’s use of Seuss’s characters and style was not a fair one. 

Lombardo v. Dr. Seuss 

In Lombardo v. Dr. Seuss, the Geisel estate once again sued an author that had borrowed from Dr. Seuss’s work to create her own. In this case (which we have written about before in the context of fair use analysis), the allegedly infringing work was a play called Who’s Holiday, which “makes use of the characters, plot, and setting of the Dr. Seuss book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! . . . to make fun of it and to criticize its qualities.” Who’s Holiday features the main character in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Cindy-Lou, as a 45-year old woman who has fallen on hard times. Throughout the play, Cindy Lou “drinks hard alcohol, abuses prescription pills, and smokes a substance she identifies as ‘Who Hash,’” while speaking in rhyming couplets which evoke Seuss’s style. Unlike the Penguin Books case, Who’s Holiday did in fact criticize How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. Like The Wind Done Gone, it commented on the wholesome tone of the original work by juxtaposing it with crass, adult language and themes. Who’s Holiday “subverts the expectations of the Seussian genre” and making it appear “ridiculous,” functioning as an effective parody well within the bounds of fair use. 

Copyright Protection for Literary Characters

Posted November 17, 2020
Photo by King Lip on Unsplash

In celebration of National Novel Writing month, Authors Alliance is pleased to bring you resources and information about copyright issues of note for fiction authors. In this post, we will go over the copyrightability of fictional characters. Last week, we discussed exceptions to copyright that are relevant to fiction authors, and next week, we will survey issues in fair use that are relevant to fiction writers

As we discussed last week, some features of fiction work are outside of copyright protection altogether. But what about literary characters? As it turns out, the answer is not entirely clear cut. Some literary characters are entitled to copyright protection, and courts employ different tests to make this determination on a case-by-case basis. As a general rule, the more well-defined and unique a character is, the more likely it is to be entitled to copyright protection. This principle was established by the renowned Judge Learned Hand in a 1930s case, Nichols v. Universal Pictures. In that case, Judge Hand pushed back against attempts to claim copyright in characters that were defined mostly by scènes a faire and were therefore “stock figures.” More recently, courts have refined this analysis while considering the copyrightability of popular characters. 

In Detective Comics v. Bruns Publications—decided just a few years after the Nichols case—a court found that the Superman character was subject to copyright protection despite arguments that the character embodied the stock hero “Hercules” character commonly used in epics and action stories. Because Superman had original attributes beyond a Hercules type, the court found he could be copyrighted, and that a competing comic, Wonderman, infringed the copyright in the Superman character with its Wonderman character. The court observed that both Superman and Wonderman “conceals his strength beneath ordinary clothing but after removing his cloak stand revealed in full panoply in a skintight acrobatic costume.” Both were described as “the strongest man in the world” and “the champion of the oppressed,” and the only significant difference in their portrayal in the comics was that Wonderman wore a red uniform and Superman a blue one. The court concluded that the authors of Wonderman had “used more than the general types and ideas” present in the Superman character, and found infringement. 

Litigation involving famous detective Sherlock Holmes illuminates the nuances of copyright protection for literary characters a bit further. In a 2014 case, Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sued the editor of an anthology of stories inspired by Sherlock Holmes, alleging that her work infringed the copyright in several Sherlock Holmes stories that had not yet entered the public domain. At the time of the lawsuit, a bulk of the stories had entered the public domain based on the expiration of the copyrights in those stories. The court rejected the estate’s argument that because some of the stories were still under copyright, the characters of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Watson, remained under copyright. Because Klinger’s anthology was inspired by the Sherlock Holmes cannon as a whole, much of which had entered the public domain, the estate could not claw back copyright protection simply because a few stories about Holmes remained under copyright. Therefore, even if a character can be protected by copyright, when the underlying work enters the public domain, so too does that character. In this way, the court circumscribed copyright protection for literary characters.

But the Conan Doyle estate’s attempt to stake out a valid copyright in the character of Sherlock Holmes, despite many of the stories having entered the public domain, did not end there. Recently, the estate filed a lawsuit against Netflix, alleging that its new series, Enola Holmes, infringed the copyright in the Sherlock Holmes stories which remained under copyright. In this case, the estate is arguing that these later stories portrayed a different version of Sherlock Holmes than that of the early stories, and alleges Netflix appropriated the character traits of the version of Holmes portrayed in the late stories. Among the Holmes traits the estate alleges that Netflix copied are an affinity for dogs and a respect for women, which it argues were not present in the early stories that have entered the public domain. This lawsuit demonstrates the uncertainty in protection for literary characters: the question is the same as the one considered in the Klinger case, but with new factual circumstances, a court will once again consider the copyrightability of Holmes and whether Netflix’s new work infringes the estate’s copyrights.

Another recent court case involving a popular Disney film provides a contemporary example of characters which are too general and ill-defined for copyright protection. In Daniels v. Disney, the author of a series of children’s books sued Disney, alleging that its popular film, Inside Out, infringed her copyright in the “Moodster” characters in her own work, which were “color-coded anthropomorphic emotions,” such as a yellow character representing happiness and a red character representing anger. The court found that the Moodsters characters were not sufficiently “delineated” and consistent to qualify for copyright protection: the appearances and names of the Moodsters changed over time, with only the colors and associated emotions remaining consistent across different works. In a sense, the court found that the characters were embodiments of the idea of associating color with emotion, making the claim also based on an uncopyrightable idea. Because the moodsters were not protected by copyright, the court did not need to consider whether Disney’s anthropomorphized emotions constituted infringement. Daniels has appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether to hear the case. Authors Alliance will keep its members and readers updated about this case as it develops.

Copyright Office Studies Effect of Sovereign Immunity for Copyright

Posted October 28, 2020
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Last week, the Copyright Office closed the comment period for its ongoing study on sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a doctrine that makes states and state entities immune from lawsuits under federal law in some cases. Congress sought to eliminate sovereign immunity in the copyright context in a 1990 federal law, but a recent decision by the Supreme Court has overturned the law. Now, the Copyright Office is conducting a study to determine whether copyright infringement by state entities is an ongoing problem warranting a new legislative remedy. It solicited feedback from the public in June. 

Authors Alliance has been closely monitoring the comments submitted to the Copyright Office—48 in total. Some comments from rights holders and trade associations alleged that infringement by state entities had occurred in multiple instances, but others argued that the evidence offered did not rise to the level of widespread, intentional infringement which would warrant a new legislative solution.

State Sovereign Immunity

State sovereign immunity immunizes states and state entities—like state government agencies, public hospitals, and state universities—from lawsuits under federal law without their consent, with roots in the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But state sovereign immunity is not absolute, and can be modified or eliminated in some contexts. In 1990, Congress passed the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act (“CRCA”), which sought to eliminate state sovereign immunity with regards to copyright claims, known as abrogation, under the authority of the Intellectual Property Clause of the Constitution.  

In 1999, a Supreme Court case, Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educational Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, found invalid an attempt to abrogate state sovereign immunity under the Intellectual Property Clause in the patent context. For twenty years, without further word from Congress or the Supreme Court on the matter, the law was left in a state of uncertainty.

Recent Background: Allen v. Cooper

Sovereign immunity within copyright was recently brought to the fore in the copyright community with a Supreme Court case during last year’s term, Allen v. Cooper. The case concerned the state of North Carolina’s use of copyrighted images of a pirate ship found off the coast without permission from the photographer rights holder. 

In the case, following the logic of Florida Prepaid, the Court held that Congress lacked the authority to abrogate sovereign immunity under the Intellectual Property Clause, making the attempt to do so in the CRCA invalid. The Court also noted that Congress could have abrogated state sovereign immunity with regards to copyright claims under its 14th Amendment powers, but that the way it did so with the passage of the CRCA did not meet the requirements of its 14th Amendment powers. Under the 14th Amendment, Congress must enact legislative solutions that are “congruent and proportional” to the problems it seeks to address. The Court held that the record before Congress did not show the widespread, intentional infringement which would justify the total abrogation of sovereign immunity for copyright claims in the CRCA. 

Responding to the Court’s conclusion and a call from Congress to investigate the matter, the Copyright Office issued a “notice of inquiry” in June 2020, announcing a study that seeks to “evaluate the degree to which copyright owners are experiencing infringement by state entities” and the extent to which these infringements are “based on intentional or reckless conduct.” The Copyright Office also asked whether other remedies available to rights holders under state law were adequate to address the problem of infringement by state entities.

Comments from the Public

The comments—both the initial round and the reply comments—fell into two categories: those that argued that infringement by state entities is widespread and hurts rights holders and creators using examples of these entities asserting sovereign immunity, and those that argue that there is no evidence of widespread infringement, but only anecdotal evidence of alleged infringement. Commenters alleged state infringement in the context of photographs, songs, software, and, to a much lesser extent, literary texts. 

With regards to authors of written works specifically, evidence of infringement by state entities was sparse. One rights holder comment argued that several university presses had infringed her copyrights in putting together a book of interviews, but reply comments in favor of sovereign immunity pointed out that fair use and unclear copyright ownership in interviews undercut this claim. The Association of University Presses, for its part, added that academic books do not bear out such a pattern of infringement, and suggested the Copyright Office “look elsewhere” in attempting to develop its record. 

Anti-Sovereign Immunity

The Copyright Alliance—one of the most prominent voices that submitted a comment arguing against sovereign immunity, which several reply comments endorsed specifically—conducted a survey of its members to offer as evidence to the Copyright Office. The survey found that some members believed their works had been infringed by a state entity. It supplemented its survey results with a discussion of a high-profile settlement involving unauthorized uses of news articles on the website for CalPERS, the California state pension fund, over an eight-year period. In that case, the state agency allegedly posted full copies of news articles in a newsletter to employees and a public website without permission, ultimately removing the content and settling. Other commenters, such as the News Media Alliance, also addressed the CalPERS settlement. 

Trade organizations representing songwriters and photographers as well as a few individual companies and creators also made comments alleging that infringement by state entities is common based on their experiences extracting licensing fees from college radio stations and obtaining remedies when a state entity uses a photograph in advertising without the rights holder’s permission. One such company, Pixsy, attempted to combine statistics about uses of images by post-secondary institutions with an estimate of what percentage of uses of images online were unauthorized to support an argument that sovereign immunity was depriving its clients of millions of dollars in licensing fees. Similarly, SoundExchange, a digital licensing firm for music, examined the royalties it received from college radio stations and concluded that these were lower than expected due to public institutions’ reliance on sovereign immunity. Several anti-sovereign immunity comments also argued that state entities themselves profit off the licensing of their intellectual property, making sovereign immunity unfair. 

Pro-Sovereign Immunity

On the opposite side of the argument were state universities, their libraries, and organizations representing those entities. Comments in favor of maintaining sovereign immunity emphasized that there is no evidence that infringement is intentional and widespread, and suggested that the major alternative remedy available—an injunction requiring the infringing content be removed—is adequate in most circumstances. Many research librarians stated that in their experience aiding university employees with copyright questions, very few rights holder complaints were brought to their attention. 

A joint reply comment from the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities sought to identify weaknesses in the empirical studies undertaken by the Copyright Alliance and SoundExchange: neither investigation accounted for fair use or the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on university practices in the early months of 2020, and the Copyright Alliance study relied on its members subjective beliefs that their copyrights had been infringed by state entities. 

In its reply comment, the University of Michigan Library pointed out that the Copyright Office’s call for comments was directed at rights holders, but many of the comments received focused on state universities and state libraries, many of whom were not given an opportunity to chime in. The Association of University Presses submitted a reply comment along similar lines. Emphasizing that scholarship can be hampered by overreaching copyright claims and that state entities cannot afford “the expensive hurdle of nuisance claims,” the Association argued that the Copyright Office should “look elsewhere” for evidence of widespread, intentional infringement than state run universities and libraries. It also noted that the comments against sovereign immunity failed to take fair use into account, focusing on perceived infringement without considering whether these uses would be fair. 

Going Forward

The Copyright Office stated in its notice of inquiry that it intends to host one or more public roundtables to seek additional input. Authors Alliance will be monitoring these roundtables and any other forthcoming policymaking activities regarding the abrogating of sovereign immunity going forward, and we will continue to update members and readers as new developments emerge.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Record on Copyright

Posted October 13, 2020
“President Trump Nominates Judge Amy Coney Barrett for Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court” by The White House is marked with CC PDM 1.0

On October 12th, the Senate Judiciary committee began its discussion of the nomination of the Honorable Amy Coney Barrett to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to her nomination to the Court, Judge Barrett served as a judge in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals after being nominated to that court by President Trump in 2017. While her three year tenure means there are few clues as to her views on intellectual property, three copyright decisions out of the 7th Circuit, for which Judge Barrett was one of three judges on a panel considering the cases, shed some light on how she might rule in copyright cases. With approximately 40 copyright petitions currently before the Supreme Court, the stakes are high for rights holders and policy makers. It should be noted that Judge Barrett did not write any of the below opinions herself, but participated in deliberations and joined each of them in full. While Judge Barrett’s nomination has been subject to controversy in some circles, there is reason to be optimistic about her views on copyright law.  

Rucker v. Fasano

Rucker v. Fasano was a case in which an author of an unpublished work alleged that an author of a similar published work had infringed her copyright. In 2010, author Kelly Rucker submitted a chapter and synopsis for a novel, The Promise of a Virgin, to a fiction contest sponsored by Harlequin Publishing, a popular trade publisher of romance novels. Then next year, Rucker learned she was not a finalist in the competition. Then, in 2013, Rucker found a book on Amazon entitled Reclaim My Heart written by defendant Donna Fasano. After purchasing a copy and reading the book, she discovered “several similarities between the plot of the novel and her work.” Both novels told “a tale of a wealthy teenage girl who falls in love with a boy of Native American heritage and becomes pregnant, before they are cruelly parted[,]” before “the lovers are reunited years later and . . . rekindle their fiery romance while their child explores his indigenous heritage with his father’s guidance.” Rucker believed that these similarities showed that Harlequin must have given her synopsis and sample chapter to Fasano, forming the basis for her copyright claim.

Ultimately, Rucker’s claim was found to be meritless. After a district court ruled in Fasano’s favor, finding that Reclaim My Heart did not infringe upon Rucker’s copyright in The Promise of a Virgin, Rucker appealed the ruling to the 7th Circuit. The district court had concluded that the novels “were not strikingly similar,” despite sharing some common themes, since “Rucker’s book was a ‘highly sexualized romance’ while Fasano’s was more of a ‘courtroom drama.'” The district court was also persuaded by the fact that Fasano finished a manuscript for a work that later became Reclaim My Heart in 2007—before Fasano began writing The Promise of a Virgin. Fasano also submitted a synopsis of the work to Harlequin in 2006, but her book was ultimately published by Amazon. 

In the 7th Circuit, a three judge panel including Judge Barett affirmed the district court’s holding, focusing on the impossibility of copying where Fasano’s book was written before Rucker’s and where there was not only no evidence of copying, but no possibility that Rucker could have copied Fasano’s work based on the timeline. The court stated summarily that given the factual record, “it is established that Fasano did not copy Rucker’s work,” without which “there can be no viable claim for copyright infringement.” Rucker’s claim that she “‘believe[d] upon reliable information’ that Fasano had access to the submissions to the Harlequin contest” was found to be insufficient to support an inference that this was the case. 

Vernon v. CBS Television Studios

In Vernon v. CBS Television Studios, writer Antonio Vernon sued several television networks for copyright infringement, alleging that they had stolen his idea for a television show called Cyber Police, for which Vernon had unsuccessfully submitted three scripts to a production company. Vernon alleged that a multitude of television shows on these networks including Intelligence, CSI: Cyber, and Cybergeddon infringed his copyright in Cyber Police based on the similarities between his work and these shows. After a district court dismissed his claims on grounds that his complaint was inadequate, Vernon appealed to the 7th Circuit. 

A three judge panel including Judge Barrett affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Vernon’s complaint. It found that the supposedly copied features of his work, such as “agents fighting cybercrime, ‘romantic strife,’ and ‘computer hijacking'” were “too common and standard to plausibly suggest that defendants’ shows were ‘substantially similar’ to his.” Such elements are known as scènes à faire—features standard to certain types of works, like marriages at the end of romantic comedies and shoot-outs in western films—and are as a rule not protected by copyright. In holding that there was no valid claim for infringement, the court underscored this principle and applied it to a relatively new type of work: technology-driven police television shows. This application of scènes à faire relaxes the threat of litigation for authors that seek to use familiar scenes and elements in their works, even when those scenes and elements involve new and emerging fields and technologies.

Sullivan v. Flora, Inc.

Sullivan v. Flora concerned the question of what constitutes a “work” for the purposes of a copyright infringement suit when the allegedly infringing materials consist of multiple images registered for copyright under a single application. While this may seem overly technical, there are wide-ranging implications for rights holders subject to meritless copyright claims.

In 2013, graphic artist Amy Sullivan entered into an agreement to produce original artwork for two informational videos for Flora, Inc., an herbal supplement company, though she retained the copyright in her work. Later that year, Sullivan discovered that Flora had used her artwork in promotional advertising, which the agreement between the parties did not authorize. Sullivan contacted Flora about the matter, and some of the images were removed from the promotional advertising materials. Sullivan proposed a licensing agreement whereby Flora could pay for the continued use of her artwork in the promotional materials. Flora refused, whereupon Sullivan filed suit. A jury ruled in Sullivan’s favor, finding Flora had infringed Sullivan’s copyright in 33 individual illustrations and awarding her $3.6 million in statutory damages. Flora then appealed the determination to the 7th Circuit.

One issue that loomed large in the litigation was the question of whether the 33 images used by Flora without proper authorization constituted a single work, or 33 separate works, for purposes of copyright. All the illustrations were registered on the same copyright application, but on the other hand they were separate, discrete illustrations. Because statutory damages in a copyright infringement lawsuit are calculated on the basis of the number of works infringed, the question had serious implications for Flora’s financial obligations but also for copyright claimants more broadly. This was the question before a three judge panel including Judge Barrett. The 7th Circuit considered, as a matter of first impression for that circuit, “what constitutes ‘one work’ in a fact pattern where a jury found infringement on multiple works registered in a single copyright application.”  The court held that this inquiry should ask whether the works have substantial independent economic value on an individual basis, or if the value lies in their compilation and relies on the presentation of all works in concert. This fact-sensitive analysis makes it more difficult for a copyright claimant to prevail on large damages awards based on infringement of multiple images where the images function as a compilation. After laying out this test, the court remanded the case to the district court for application of the proper analysis to Sullivan’s claim, vacating the $3.6 million damages award. 

Sullivan v. Flora is still ongoing—in early 2020, the parties submitted their briefs to the district court for the Western District of Wisconsin in support of their positions regarding damages.

Key Takeaways for Authors

While it is difficult to extrapolate a comprehensive view of copyright law from copyright decisions Judge Barrett participated in during her time in the 7th Circuit, a theme of skepticism of overbroad copyright claims and excessive damages emerges from these three decisions. In both Rucker v. Fasano and Vernon v. CBS, the court rejected copyright infringement claims based on tenuous similarities between two works, signaling that more is required than mere thematic similarity to prevail on a copyright infringement claim. Together, the cases make clear that a belief that a later work is simply too similar to the author’s own work alone cannot be the sole basis for a successful copyright claim in the 7th Circuit. 

Sullivan v. Flora also has important implications for authors, since the judges in the case demonstrated a concern about excessive damages in copyright actions. One of Authors Alliance’s founding principles is ensuring copyright’s remedies protect our members’ interests, and this decision serves as an obstacle for excessive damage awards in the 7th Circuit: a claimant must prevail on proving that each compiled work has independent economic value before being awarded damages based on multiple incidences of infringement: multi-million dollar awards like the plaintiff in that case received cannot be the default in such situations.

House Judiciary Committee Hears Testimony on Revisions to Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act

Posted October 6, 2020
Photo by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

On September 30th, the United States House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee heard testimony from a variety of stakeholders regarding potential reforms to Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”), a law passed in 1998 which made reforms to U.S. Copyright Law. Section 512 provides for—among other things—a so-called “safe harbor” from copyright liability for online service providers (“OSPs”) that host user-generated content, provided those OSPs have a system in place that allows rights holders to request that infringing content be removed and follow other requirements outlined in the statute. This has given way to the current system of notice and takedown, whereby copyright holders formally request the removal of allegedly infringing content, and with which many who create, post, and access content online are all too familiar. 

Background

In May of this year, the Copyright Office released a report five years in the making, evaluating the effectiveness of Section 512. In the report, the Copyright Office concluded that the balance Congress sought to achieve in Section 512 is, in its view, “askew,” concluding that many creators are struggling to earn a livelihood in light of the pervasiveness of online infringement and the practical difficulties of having infringing content removed. 

Authors Alliance has written before about the issuance of the report, as well as the impact of Section 512 on non-infringing creators and universities and research libraries. While Authors Alliance embraces the underlying premise that Section 512—now more than 20 years old—is in need of updating to meet the demands of the modern information society, we believe reforms should focus on protecting creators’ interests in making their works available online. Last week, industry representatives, content creators, and policy advocates testified as to the advantages and challenges of Section 512 as it currently stands.

The Hearing

Six stakeholders testified at the hearing and provided additional written testimony: representatives from the Library Copyright Alliance, the Copyright Alliance, Public Knowledge, and the Computer & Communication Industry Association in addition to an individual singer-songwriter and a visual artist who is the leader of the PLUS Coalition. The hearing was polarizing, with two distinct ideological camps emerging, disagreeing both on whether reforms were needed to Section 512 as well as what reforms would address the various problems posed by the provision. On the one side, represented by the Library Copyright Alliance and Public Knowledge, witnesses expressed doubt about the Copyright Office’s conclusion that the “balance” Section 512 sought to achieve between facilitating free speech online and protecting copyrights is askew, tilting too far in favor of speech at copyright holders’ expense. Public Knowledge further proposed a need for reform in the opposite direction, i.e., making it more difficult to get allegedly infringing content removed, due to the current notice and takedown regime being over-broad as well as posing a threat to free speech online and the lawful fair use of others’ work. 

On the other side, the remaining witnesses argued that the current notice and takedown system hurts creators, who must vigilantly search for infringement online and request removal of infringing content through what they described as a highly burdensome “constant whack-a-mole” process which can require consulting legal counsel. They argued that this can result in less time for artistic endeavors and can compromise an already fragile income stream for creators. Both the visual musical artists testified that they had had such experiences. 

Members of the committee seemed similarly divided in their sympathies to the two camps. Some representatives expressed concern for the depressing effect that infringement could have on content creators’ income, and others focused on overzealous takedown notices and the negative impact that could have on add-on creators—such as YouTube personalities that rely on fair use to comment on culture—and internet users at large. 

Many of the stakeholders discussed whether technical solutions could go some of the way towards ameliorating the problems posed by Section 512, but disagreed over whether a technical solution was possible. Stakeholders and members of the committee emphasized the overwhelming amount of takedown notices the largest platforms like YouTube receive, as well as the imperfection of existing algorithms to correctly detect infringement on these platforms.  The representative from Public Knowledge echoed Authors Alliance’s concerns about the missing stakeholders at the hearing: internet users whose access to non-infringing content is disrupted when it is removed due to overzealous takedown notices as well as add-on creators whose speech is suppressed.

What’s Next?

Senate and House Committees are continuing to review the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act with an eye towards proposing reforms. We will keep readers informed about major developments. Recently, the Copyright Office also launched a new website on the DMCA and its key provisions, including Section 512. For more information, watch the full hearing and read written testimony on the House Judiciary Committee’s website.