Category Archives: Fair Use

Update: Fair Use in the Courts in 2021

Posted August 31, 2021
“Prince Mural” by red.wolf is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In April, we published a post on two major fair use decisions from this year: Google v. Oracle and The Andy Warhol Foundation v. Goldsmith. In the post, we expressed our uncertainty about how the decision in Google, which concerned a specific question related to software, would impact fair use analysis for literary and artistic works. Earlier this month, the Second Circuit answered this question, at least with regards to fair use jurisprudence in that circuit.

The Andy Warhol Foundation v. Goldsmith concerned the question of whether Warhol’s screen prints of Prince, based in part on a photograph taken by Goldsmith, constituted fair use. The court found that the works were not fair use, in large part because it believed that Warhol’s screen prints were not transformative, but instead, the same works as Goldsmith’s photograph, but with a new aesthetic. The court signaled that the screen prints were closer to derivative works based on the original photograph than fair uses of the photograph. In contrast, the Supreme Court in Google v. Oracle did find that Google’s use of Oracle’s APIs in its Android platform was a fair one, in part because the Court found the use to be highly transformative.  

After the Google decision was handed down, the Warhol Foundation requested a re-hearing in its case, asking the Second Circuit to consider whether the Google decision would change its fair use determination. The court then issued an amended decision, and for the most part affirmed its earlier ruling, reiterating that the screen prints did not constitute fair use. The court held that the ruling in Google v. Oracle did not have much bearing on determinations about fair use when it comes to literary and artistic works. The court also underscored the Supreme Court’s statement that copyright protection is weaker for functional works—like software—and stronger for literary or artistic works—like Warhol’s screen prints, further making the Google decision inapplicable to its case. 

Another small revision in the Warhol court’s amended decision was notable for its bearing on fair use: the original decision stated that derivative works were “specifically excluded” from being considered fair use as a categorical matter, but in the amended decision, the court stated that derivative works may fail to qualify as fair use, walking back its earlier statement. By leaving open the possibility that a derivative work might still be a fair use, the court reinforced the idea that fair use is a context and fact-specific determination, a principle that also animated the decision in the Google case.

For an in-depth discussion of Google v. Oracle and the original decision in The Warhol Foundation v. Goldsmith, see our earlier post.

Fair Use in the Courts in 2021

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

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

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

Google v. Oracle

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

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

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

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

The Andy Warhol Foundation v. Goldsmith

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

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

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

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

Creation is Not a Closed Book Exam: Developing the Best Practices in Fair Use for Open Educational Resources

Posted March 16, 2021

by Will Cross and Meredith Jacob, originally posted on the Copyright at Harvard Library blog

You can learn a lot from which questions people ask you, and which they don’t. As educators and advocates for building openly-licensed textbooks and other open educational resources (OER), we spend a lot of our time at conferences and workshops talking about how to understand and use Creative Commons licenses. As we’ve done presentations over the past few years, however, we noticed that attendees generally listened politely to our presentation and then spent the entire question and discussion period asking pointed questions about how fair use fits in.

As fair use advocates, we love these questions – what’s more fun than digging into a juicy fair use discussion! But bringing discussions about fair use into the open education community raised a second set of questions from creators and especially gatekeepers, and we needed to give people a way forward that went beyond a quick conference Q&A but still didn’t promise individualized legal advice. Some open educators felt unprepared to analyze fair use in particular contexts. Many felt apprehensive about fair use as a whole, often based on anxieties grounded in copyright folklore left over from the era of Napster and LimeWire. Strikingly, many institutional gatekeepers felt unable to make broad, uniform decisions about whether and how to acknowledge fair use at all. While they recognized that some authors were in fact relying on fair use sub rosa, without any tool for systematically understanding and applying fair use they felt that their options were either “allow anything” or “(pretend to) allow nothing.”

Of course, the reality is that every textbook relies to some extent on fair use. It would be practically impossible to build a textbook – certainly a good textbook – without quoting anyone, critiquing anything, or illustrating ideas with text, images, music, or other materials from the real world. Creating anything, including OER, is not a closed book exam. Good pedagogy explicitly builds on the work that has come before and great pedagogy connects to the real world and the lived experiences of the learners it is meant to engage.

Our job, then, was to understand what type of guidance the community needed in order to find a happy medium between “no fair use allowed” and “anything goes.” Fortunately, we had a great tool for exactly this type of work: the Codes of Best Practice in Fair Use. For two decades, the Codes of Best Practice have proved to be an effective tool for many communities to document the repeated professional situations in which they can and must rely on fair use. The Codes are built on a framework that aligns fair use decision making with both the professional mission of the creators and the predictable legal principles of fair use law. These Codes have worked for such disparate communities as documentary filmmakers, librarians, poets, and dance archivists, just to name a few.  

As when creating past Codes, we began with a series of interviews with stakeholders across the community. These interviews helped us understand where questions about fair use were creating friction for OER creators, where authors were regularly relying on fair use, what parallel concerns such as accessibility and equity demanded attention, and finally where OER creators were getting information, advice, or even hard rules about the copyright decisions they were making. By early 2020 we felt ready to begin the focus groups that are the signature work of creating Best Practice documents. We felt inspired, connected, and ready to go. Nothing could stop us now . . .

Obviously 2020 didn’t go the way anyone expected, and we paused the process to support educators making the rapid move to fully online instruction with a series of webinars on building resilient materials for teaching and learning. This series also began with a question: “can I read aloud to my students in an online classroom?” The answer, of course, is “reading is most definitely allowed!”

Significantly, what we thought would be a brief detour turned out to be a critical reminder for all of our work, especially the Best Practices: “it’s always an emergency for someone.” While the pandemic brought into focus acute questions about rapid shifts in pedagogy and making do with substandard wifi, for many learners those challenges are chronic and exist beside and in the context of systematic injustice, inaccessible design, and deep digital divides. Relying on fair use as a tool to enable access seemed urgently necessary in that moment of crisis. But those needs are no less urgent and fair use is no less essential for students who face perennial challenges based on inequity and inaccessibility. 

As we returned to developing the Code, this core principle continued to animate our work and to resonate deeply in focus group discussions, particularly when we discussed the inadequacy of linking out rather than relying on fair use to reliably incorporate materials. By the late fall we had completed eighteen focus groups and were pleased that our outstanding team of legal reviewers enthusiastically supported the document we facilitated in partnership with the open education community. 

As we celebrate Fair Use Week 2021 we’re excited to share the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Open Educational Resources. As with all of the Codes, this resource describes an approach to reasoning about the application of fair use to issues both familiar and emergent but does not provide rules of thumb, bright-line rules, or other decision-making shortcuts. Using the Code to develop OER is also not a closed book exam. Instead, it is designed to empower you to bring together a team of educators, librarians, publishing experts, and others to develop resilient, inclusive OER that engages with and reflects the work that has come before and the world that learners are preparing to enter.

You can learn more about what the Code says, how it works, and how it fits into a global body of educational exceptions in this recorded webinar. We’re also developing a series of community-specific events for open educators, librarians, and legal gatekeepers such as offices of general counsel over the coming weeks. We invite you to work with us to develop guidance and models for applying the Code in specific disciplines and communities through workshops and project development. We’re just getting started with the really fun stuff and we know your questions and real world examples will help make this resource even more meaningful and exciting.

Meredith Jacob serves as the Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property (PIJIP) at American University Washington College of Law. Her work includes student outreach and advising, curriculum coordination, and academic research and advocacy. Currently her work also includes research and advocacy focused on open access to federally funded research, flexible limitations and exceptions to copyright, and public interest in international intellectual property. Previously, Meredith worked with state legislators on a variety of intellectual property and regulatory issues affecting pharmaceuticals and the privacy of prescription records.

Will Cross is the Director of the Copyright & Digital Scholarship Center in the NC State University Libraries, an instructor in the UNC SILS, and an OER Research Fellow. Trained as a lawyer and librarian, he guides policy, speaks, and writes on open culture and navigating legal uncertainty. As a course designer and presenter for ACRL, SPARC, and the Open Textbook Network, Will has developed training materials and run workshops across the US and for international audiences from Ontario to Abu Dhabi. Will’s current research focuses on the relationship between copyright and open education. In addition to this project he serves as co-PI and co-developer of the IMLS-funded Library Copyright Institute.

Fair Use Week 2021: Resource Roundup

Posted February 23, 2021
Colorful neon sign of a cowboy on a rearing horse
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Authors who want to incorporate source materials into their writings with confidence may find themselves faced with more questions than answers. What exactly does fair use mean? What factors do courts consider when evaluating claims of fair use? How does fair use support authors’ research, writing, and publishing goals? Fortunately, help is at hand! This Fair Use/Fair Dealing Week, we’re featuring a selection of resources and articles to help authors understand and apply fair use.

Fair Use 101

Cover of the Fair Use Guide for Nonfiction Authors

Authors Alliance Guide to Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors: Our guidebook, Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors, covers the basics of fair use, addresses common situations faced by nonfiction authors where fair use may apply, and debunks some common misconceptions about fair use. Download a PDF or purchase a copy today.

Authors Alliance Fair Use FAQs: Our Fair Use FAQs cover questions such as:

  • Can I still claim fair use if I am using copyrighted material that is highly creative?
  • What if I want to use copyrighted material for commercial purposes?
  • Does fair use apply to copyrighted material that is unpublished?

Codes of Best Practices in Fair Use: The Center for Media and Social Impact at American University has compiled this collection of Codes of Best Practices in Fair Use for various creative communities, from journalists to librarians to filmmakers.

Don’t miss the latest best practices document, the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Open Educational Resources. This document is intended to support authors, teachers, professors, librarians, and all open educators in evaluating when and how they can incorporate third party copyright materials into Open Educational Resources to meet their pedagogical goals.

Fair Use Evaluator Tool: This tool, created by the American Library Association, helps users support and document their assertions of fair use.

Dig Deeper

U.S. Copyright Office Fair Use Index: The U.S. Copyright Office maintains this searchable database of legal opinions and fair use test cases.

Fair Use and Fiction: Learn about fair use and parody in fiction.

Fair Use and Text Data Mining: Explore the intersection of fair use and non-consumptive text mining in this new chapter on legal issues in text data mining.

Fair Use and Publication Contracts: Learn how to tell if your publication contract allows you to rely on fair use when you incorporate third-party content into your work—and options for negotiating if it doesn’t.

Fair Use and Controlled Digital Lending: Read about why we believe Controlled Digital Lending (“CDL”) is supported by a good faith interpretation of fair use, and take a moment to share how CDL has helped you meet your goals for your work.

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. 

Fair Use Resource Roundup

Posted February 25, 2020
Photo by Carlee Dittemore on Unsplash

Authors who want to incorporate source materials into their writings with confidence may find themselves faced with more questions than answers. What exactly does fair use mean? What factors do courts consider when evaluating claims of fair use? How does fair use support authors’ research, writing, and publishing goals? Fortunately, help is at hand! This Fair Use/Fair Dealing Week, we’re featuring a selection of resources and articles to help authors understand and apply fair use.

Fair Use 101

Cover of the Fair Use Guide for Nonfiction Authors

Authors Alliance Guide to Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors: Our guidebook, Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors covers the basics of fair use, addresses common situations faced by nonfiction authors where fair use may apply, and debunks some common misconceptions about fair use. Download a PDF or purchase a copy today.

Authors Alliance Fair Use FAQs: Our Fair Use FAQs cover questions such as:

  • Can I still claim fair use if I am using copyrighted material that is highly creative?
  • What if I want to use copyrighted material for commercial purposes?
  • Does fair use apply to copyrighted material that is unpublished?

Codes of Best Practices in Fair Use: The Center for Media and Social Impact at American University has compiled this collection of Codes of Best Practices in Fair Use for various creative communities, from journalists to librarians to filmmakers.

Fair Use Evaluator Tool: This tool, created by the ALA, helps users support and document their assertions of fair use.

Dig Deeper

U.S. Copyright Office Fair Use Index: The U.S. Copyright Office maintains this searchable database of legal opinions and fair use test cases.

Dr. Seuss, Picasso, and Grease: Learn about three current cases involving the doctrine of fair use working their way through the courts.

Fair Use and Text Data Mining: Explore the intersection of fair use and non-consumptive text mining in this new chapter on legal issues in text data mining.

Fair Use and Publication Contracts: Learn how to tell if your publication contract allows you to rely on fair use when you incorporate third-party content into your work—and options for negotiating if it doesn’t.

Authors Alliance Guides Now Available on Project MUSE

Posted April 2, 2019

We’re pleased to announce that our educational guidebooks for authors—which cover rights reversion, open access, fair use, and publication contracts—are now available on Project MUSE, a repository for monographs and journals created by Johns Hopkins University in cooperation with libraries and university presses. Founded in 1995, Project MUSE is a non-profit home for scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and now contains over 674 journals and 50,000 books.

The full range of titles on the platform is available via library subscription; many works (including all Authors Alliance titles) are also freely available to everyone on open access terms thanks to the Open Access Books Program, an initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with the goal of enabling OA works on the platform to be “broadly shared, widely discoverable, and richly linked.”

Four Authors Alliance guidebooks displayed on a shelf

Starting with the publication of Understanding Rights Reversion in 2015, each Authors Alliance guide has been made freely available to view and download on our website and via the Internet Archive. For those who prefer a traditional book format, the guides are also available for purchase in print.

Now, thanks to Project MUSE, our guides also contain rich metadata to make them discoverable and available to libraries. The PDFs also meet the Project MUSE standards of accessibility for print-disabled readers. We are grateful to Kelley Squazzo and Philip Hearn at Project MUSE for their assistance in making our guides available via the Project MUSE platform. Publishers interested in adding their titles to the Open Access Books Program at Project MUSE can learn more here.

Fair Use, Innovation, and Controlled Digital Lending

Posted March 5, 2019

We’d like to thank co-authors Kyle K. Courtney and David R. Hansen for permission to re-post the following article, which originally appeared on the Copyright at Harvard Library blog on March 1, 2019.


One of the beautiful things about fair use is how it can soften the copyright act, which is in many ways highly structured and rigid, to provide flexibility for new, innovative technology.

To understand how, it’s worth appreciating the structure of the Copyright Act. If you look at the table of contents of Chapter 1 of the Act (“Subject Matter and Scope of Copyright”), you see the first several sections define basic terms such as copyrightable subject matter. Included in that first half of the chapter is Section 106, which defines the exclusive rights held by rights holders: the right to control copying, the creation of derivative works, public distribution, public performance, and display.  In the bottom half of the Act, Sections 108 to 122 provide for a wide variety of limitations and exceptions to those owners’ exclusive rights. These exceptions are largely for the benefit of users and the public, including specific exceptions to help libraries, teachers, blind and print-disabled users, non-commercial broadcast TV stations, and so on.

Then, there’s fair use. As if perfectly positioned to balance between the broad set of rights granted to owners and the specific limitations for the benefit of users and the public, “fair use” is codified in Section 107, though it really isn’t a creature of statute. Fair use is a doctrine, developed by courts as an  “equitable rule of reason” that requires courts to “avoid rigid application of the Copyright Statute when on occasion it would stifle the very creativity which that law was designed to foster.” In that role, fair use has facilitated all sorts of technological innovations that Congress never could have anticipated, allowing copyrighted works and new technology to work together in harmony.

One particularly innovative system developed to enhance access to works is “controlled digital lending” (“CDL”):

CDL enables a library to circulate a digitized title in place of a physical one in a controlled manner. Under this approach, a library may only loan simultaneously the number of copies that it has legitimately acquired, usually through purchase or donation….[I]t could only circulate the same number of copies that it owned before digitization. Essentially, CDL must maintain an “owned to loaned” ratio. Circulation in any format is controlled so that only one user can use any given copy at a time, for a limited time. Further, CDL systems generally employ appropriate technical measures to prevent users from retaining a permanent copy or distributing additional copies.

While the courts have yet to weigh in directly on the CDL concept, we now have some guidance from a case in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Capitol Records, LLC v. ReDigi Inc. This case is about the development of an online marketplace created by ReDigi, which facilitated the sale of “used” mp3 music files. Capitol Records sued ReDigi, alleging that ReDigi infringed its exclusive rights to reproduction and distribution when it attempted to use a particular transfer method to sell the used mp3s.

The Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that the doctrine of first sale is only an exception to the public distribution right and, therefore, does not protect digital lending because, in that process, new copies of a work are always made.

The court also rejected ReDigi’s fair use assertion. It found that the use was commercial in nature, was considered non-transformative, and replicated works exactly and precisely; simply put, they created mirror image copies of existing digital files.  Further, though the libraries associations in their briefs had raised the issue of a nexus of connection between fair use and specific copyright exceptions, such as Section 109 and 108, as an extension of Congressional policy that should influence the fair use analysis, the court did not discuss that argument.

That the court ruled ReDigi, a commercial enterprise, had interfered with the market for iTunes-licensed mp3s and their effort was not a transformative fair use, comes as no surprise to most lawyers and copyright scholars.

However, the decision, written by the creator of the modern transformative fair use doctrine, Judge Pierre Laval, contains several important lessons for CDL.

Transformative Use

First, the case raises a significant question as to whether CDL of digitized books may be “transformative” in nature. In the decision, examining the first factor, Judge Leval explains that a use can be transformative when it “utilizes technology to achieve the transformative purpose of improving delivery of content without unreasonably encroaching on the commercial entitlements of the rights holder.” For physical books, especially those that are difficult to obtain, this application of “transformative use” has a direct correlation to the core application of CDL.

Further, this quote interprets another critical technology and fair use case from the U.S. Supreme Court, Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417 (1984), famously called the “Betamax case.” Since its decision in 1984, the Sony ruling helped establish and foster the creation of new and vital technology, from personal computers and iPods to sampling machines and TiVo. This Sony quote was most recently used in another Second Circuit case, Fox News Network, LLC v. TVEyes, where the same court laid out this particular reading of Sony. So, ReDigi here is drawing upon the precedent of two important transformative fair use cases to make its point. Under this transformative use definition, CDL should be determined to be transformative by the courts, especially if the commercial rights of the rights holder are not unreasonably encroached.

Therefore, while the court found ReDigi’s use to not be transformative, the Second Circuit opened the door for continued technological development, especially for non-commercial transformative uses under the first factor, like CDL. In fact, according to several scholars (Michelle Wu, Kevin Smith, Aaron Perzanowski), this creates a much stronger argument that CDL would be ruled a transformative fair use by a court.

Market Harm

The Second Circuit held that the ReDigi system caused market harm under the fourth factor of the fair use statute. Again, this is not a surprise to the copyright world. The court found that the service provider had no actual control of the objects being sold and that it “made reproductions of Plaintiffs’ works for the purpose of resale in competition with the Plaintiffs’ market for the sale of their sound recordings.”

What does this mean for CDL’s analysis under the fourth factor? Here, again, based on the language of the ReDigi decision, CDL looks pretty different. The ReDigi resales were exact, bit-for-bit replicas of the original sold in direct competition with “new” mp3s online through other marketplaces, such as iTunes. The substitutionary effect was clear, especially since the mp3 format is the operative market experiencing harm. For digitized copies of print books used for CDL, the substitutionary effect is far less clear. With most 20th-century books—the books that we feel are the best candidates for CDL—the market to date has been exclusively print. For those books, some new evidence from the Google Books digitization project suggests that digitization may in fact act as a complementary good, allowing digital discovery to encourage new interest in long-neglected works.

CDL doesn’t compete with a recognized market. When a library legally acquires an item, it has the right, under the first sale doctrine, to continue to use that work unimpeded by any further permission or fees of the copyright holder. CDL’s digitized copy replaces the legitimately acquired copy, not an unpurchased copy in the marketplace. To the extent there is a “market harm,” it’s one that is already built into the transaction and built into copyright law: libraries are already legally permitted to circulate and loan their materials. The CDL “own-to-loan ratio” ensures that the market harm for the digital is the exact same as circulating the original item.

Again, the language of the ReDigi court should be examined closely. The court distinguishes substitutionary markets from those that are complementary and natural extensions of the use inherent with purchasing the original: “to the extent a reproduction was made solely for cloud storage of the user’s music on ReDigi’s server, and not to facilitate resale, the reproduction would likely be fair use just as the copying at issue in Sony was fair use.” Reading this language through the lens of CDL, a modern reproduction service, such as CDL, that further enhances the owner’s use of materials that were purchased under first sale or owned under other authorized means would also qualify as a fair use.

All in all, the ReDigi case most certainly does not settle the CDL issue; if anything, the specific language of the court emphasizes the potential for more non-commercial transformative uses like CDL.


David Hansen is the Associate University Librarian for Research, Collections & Scholarly Communications at Duke University Libraries. Before coming to Duke he was a Clinical Assistant Professor and Faculty Research Librarian at UNC School of Law. And before that, he was a fellow at UC Berkeley Law in its Digital Library Copyright Project.

Kyle K. Courtney is Copyright Advisor and Program Manager at Harvard Library’s Office for Scholarly Communication (OSC). Before joining the OSC, Kyle managed the Faculty Research And Scholarly Support Services department at Harvard Law School Library.

Fair Use Resource Roundup

Posted February 28, 2019
Neon-lit sculpture of cowboy on rearing horse
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Fair use can be a tricky concept to pin down. What exactly does fair use mean? What makes it such an important part of U.S. copyright law? What are the “four factors” that courts consider when evaluating claims of fair use? And, perhaps most importantly of all, how does fair use support authors’ research, writing, and publishing goals? Authors who want to incorporate source materials with confidence, while also respecting copyright and the integrity of their fellow creators, may find themselves faced with more questions than answers. Fortunately, help is at hand!

Just in time for Fair Use/Fair Dealing Week, we’re featuring this selection of resources to help understand and apply fair use.

Authors Alliance Fair Use Resource Page

Cover of the Fair Use Guide for Nonfiction Authors

The FAQ on the fair use resource page on our website covers questions such as:

  • Can I still claim fair use if I am using copyrighted material that is highly creative?
  • What if I want to use copyrighted material for commercial purposes?
  • Does fair use apply to copyrighted material that is unpublished?

While you’re there, you can also download a PDF or purchase a copy of our guidebook, Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors.

Codes of Best Practices in Fair Use

The Center for Media and Social Impact at American University has compiled this collection of Codes of Best Practices in Fair Use for various creative communities, from journalists to librarians to filmmakers.

Fair Use Evaluator Tool

This step by step tool, created by the ALA, enables users to support and document their assertions of fair use.

Fair Use Toolkit

Check out this comprehensive collection of copyright and fair use tools and websites from the ACRL.

U.S. Copyright Office Fair Use Index

The USCO maintains this searchable database of legal opinions and fair use test cases.


Do you have suggestions for other sites you depend on for quality content in your writing, teaching, or creative pursuits? Let us know, and we’ll feature them in a future Roundup!

Spotlight on Publication Contracts: Fair Use and Third-Party Permissions Clauses

Posted February 26, 2019
Shelf with colorful books and Authors Alliance logo on blue background

In our Spotlight on Book Publication Contracts series, we are shining the light on the ways that authors can negotiate for publication contract terms that help them make and keep their books available in the ways they want. This series is based on the information, strategies, and success stories in our guide to Understanding and Negotiating Publication Contracts. Be sure to check out the online or print version of our guide for more details on these and other strategies to help you meet your creative and pragmatic goals.

In this week’s installment of our Spotlight on Publication Contracts, we’re celebrating Fair Use Week by highlighting an important aspect of your publication contract that defines whether your publisher expects you to obtain permissions for any third-party content you use in your book, or whether your contract explicitly allows you to rely on fair use.

It is common for book contracts to include terms requiring authors to deliver documents to their publishers showing that they have obtained all necessary third-party permissions: i.e., that the author is legally authorized to use any materials incorporated into the book where the copyright is owned by third parties. Permissions may be required to use someone else’s copyrighted work—such as artwork, illustrations, or photographs. However, under certain circumstances, an author’s use of a reasonable amount of another’s work to, for example, prove or illustrate the author’s point may be fair use, which does not require third-party permission or payment.

Often, permissions clauses do not acknowledge the right of an author to rely on exceptions and limitations to copyright like fair use. Instead, they may stipulate that an author “shall be responsible for obtaining written permissions from the respective copyright owners to reproduce materials from third-party copyrighted works.” Clauses like this do not explicitly allow you to rely on fair use. If you plan to rely on fair use to use third-party material in your book, you may want to ask for a clause like this:

If the Author uses any copyrighted text, tables, illustrations, or other materials in the Author’s Work, whether these are the Author’s own or those of another, and if this use does not meet the criteria specified in the fair use section of U.S. copyright law, the Author agrees to obtain and deliver to the Publisher proper and complete permissions to reprint such materials from the owners of the copyrights….

For more information about fair use, check out Authors Alliance’s Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors or the codes of best practices in fair use for a variety of disciplines.